I am The Cosmos (Rykodisk ‘92) Rating: A-
Chris Bell was the neglected "other" leader of Big Star, the revered ‘70s cult band, and I am The Cosmos collects the solo songs (almost all of which had remained unreleased until this collection) that he recorded between 1974-1978. Those were the years immediately following his departure from Big Star due to their lack of commercial success and infighting with Alex Chilton, who has received almost all of the credit for the band’s towering influence on future alternative rock bands. But Bell was also extremely important to Big Star early on, and though he left the band after their debut album, #1 Record, several rocking songs here (“Get Away,” “I Got Kinda Lost,” “I Don’t Know”) wouldn’t have sounded out of place on that album. These songs further prove that Bell was a prime power pop practitioner in his own right who never got his just due. Still, this album is memorable primarily because of its heartbreaking ballads, where Bell’s high-pitched, pained vocal delivery (which can wear on you over the course of an entire album) is at its most affecting. I’m referring to the terrific title track, “You And Your Sister,” “Look Up,” and “Though I Know She Lies,” while the power ballad-y “There Was A Light” and the intense, religious rocker “Better Save Yourself” are other highlights. Despite Bell’s lonely, insulated outlook and the unfinished quality of some of these songs, his sensitive songwriting style and some impressive performances (Bell displays significant guitar skills and drummer Richard Rosebrough also shines, particularly on “Get Away”) really register with me. Lines like “every night I tell myself, I am the cosmos, I am the wind, but that don’t get you back again” are simply devastating, and when he sings “I’d really like to see you again” on the title track it strikes a resonant chord knowing that he won’t (Bell died tragically in a 1978 car crash). Likewise, when he sings “you know we’re all alone” it’s sad to think that he probably did feel all alone to a large degree. Fortunately, Bell’s raw vulnerability made for powerful music, and after over 15 long years we now have these 12 songs to rediscover and remember him by. Though this album doesn’t consistently soar as high as the best of Big Star, at its best it comes close, and I am The Cosmos provides a welcome look back at the sad but beautiful music of Chris Bell, a distinct ‘70s talent who somehow fell through the cracks. Note: The album also includes a spectacular cover photo, three alternate song versions, and lovingly personal liner notes from his brother David.