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Music Review: Chris Bell – I Am The Cosmos

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Chris Bell’s I Am The Cosmos contains some of the most beautifully desolate songs ever recorded. Like Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, Bell’s lone solo album seems to reach out from beyond the grave, with music and lyrics foreshadowing his tragic end.

Unlike the delicate acoustic tapestries of Drake though, at heart Chris Bell was a rocker. As a founding member of Big Star, Bell knew the inherent joys of the perfect three minute rock song. The failure of Big Star’s debut, #1 Record to find an audience seemed to deeply affect Bell. He left the band in 1972 before the follow-up, Radio City was recorded.

It was Bell’s proverbial banishment to the rock and roll wilderness that resulted in the 12 songs originally released in 1992 by Rykodisc. For a certain audience, I Am The Cosmos was a revelation.

Many of the tracks were in various states of completion before the 1978 car crash that took Bell’s life. Thankfully, they were not tinkered with, at least as far as I can tell.

Although he obviously had nothing to do with the sequencing and design of the record, it is hard to believe that Bell would not have approved of it. The 12 tracks that comprise I Am The Cosmos seamlessly work together to tell a story.

Beginning with the child-like vision of the title cut, through fun rockers like “Get Away,” and “I Kinda Got Lost,” through the triumphant (if willfully blind) acceptance of love on “Though I Know She Lies,” I Am The Cosmos succeeds brilliantly.

Rhino has taken the original version of the disc and added a second to create the just released I Am The Cosmos (Deluxe). To be honest, the extras on these types of things are usually pretty negligible. Having said that, there is a lot on the second disc to recommend to even a casual Chris Bell fan.

First off, all but two of the 15 tracks included are previously unreleased. The first two songs are by Icewater, who were the precursors to Big Star. Then there is a tune by a band Bell was in called Rock City. The next nine are all alternate versions and mixes from Cosmos.

The three alternate mixes are nothing to really get too excited about, as far as I am concerned. But the alternate versions are, especially the 5:18 take of “I Am The Cosmos,” which is nearly two minutes longer than the original. This cut alone justifies the entire package for me. It is simply stunning, and sounds as if it were recorded live in the studio with the full band. An amazing find.

The final three unreleased gems include one titled “Stay With Me,” recorded with Keith Sykes (best known for his work with Jimmy Buffett). “In My Darkest Hour” features the vocals of Nancy Bryan, which is unique to say the least on a Chris Bell record.

The final track is a solo acoustic guitar piece by Bell titled “Clacton Rag.” It reminds me a bit of something John Fahey might have written.

“Every night I tell myself I am the cosmos, I am the wind…”

There is something so deeply personal, and magic about words like that. Words which seemed to come to Chris Bell so easily, and yet as we know, there was nothing easy about his life.

I Am The Cosmos (Deluxe) is not just for "the fans.” I think anyone who understands the special beauty of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, or side two of Neil Young’s On The Beach will be well rewarded by hearing Chris Bell.

I Am The Cosmos inhabit’s a very unique place in music, and this Deluxe edition just adds to it’s overall splendor.

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About Greg Barbrick

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    You just said the magic words with “Side two of On The Beach.” But you already knew that…

    Sold.

    -Glen

  • Greg Barbrick

    Glen,

    Yes, you are right. It was you that turned me on to that one many moons ago. Chris Bell strikes the same kind of notes to me. This is a great record.