I Am the Cosmos
Artist: Chris Bell
Label: Rhino Handmade
Disc 1 - 12 tracks/44:41
Disc 2 - 15 tracks/56:36
Chris Bell could have been one of those long-forgotten musicians who had a brief career and died way too soon. But he earned a spot in rock music history due to being an original member of the highly influential band, Big Star, with his songwriting partner Alex Chilton. Their first release, #1 Record, garnered critical acclaim but failed to connect with the buying public, partly due to distribution issues with their record label. Bell had given his all to this project and quickly became depressed at the lack of attention the record received. After leaving the band, he overdosed on pills in a possible attempt to end his life. He was rescued and hospitalized for a significant amount of time before he was finally ready to get back to making music.
Bell started out as a studio rat, one of those musicians who spent every available moment in the recording studio, learning the process and techniques that would allow him to bring his musical visions to life. He was fortunate to have a willing instructor in John Fry, the owner of the legendary Ardent Studio in Memphis. Bell and other like-minded musicians formed a variety of studio bands. Three cuts from this era open Disc 2 of this set . The first two cuts were recorded as Icewater circa 1970. “Looking Forward” is a moody rocker with a simple set of lyrics but a strong lead vocal from Bell, who is already making liberal use of tape loops and other effects in the mix. “Sunshine” is acoustic pop ballad with Stephen Rhea on vocal while Bell contributes guitar and backing vocal. Another group, Rock City, cut a an impressive slice of power pop on “My Life Is Right” featuring another fine vocal from Bell.
After he recovered from the Big Star episode, Bell returned to the studio to begin recording tracks for an solo release. The initial sessions created numerous moments of musical magic. But Bell was still being dogged by demons and depression, which lead to increasing drug use. Finally his brother David intervened and took Chris to overseas, hoping to get his brother into a healthier environment. Over the next two years, Chris would work in studios throughout Europe, continuing to record and hone the tracks. During this time, he began to explore the spiritual nature of the world through Christianity, the notion of salvation through faith being a strong focus for the troubled musician.
One highlight of this period was Bell getting the opportunity to visit AIR Studios and work with Geoff Emerick, who engineered a number of the Beatles recordings. Bell was a huge fan of the group, the influence evident in his songwriting as well as the soundstage he strived for in the mixes of the tracks. David spent months shopping the tracks to any record label that would listen but couldn’t get any of then to offer a contract.
Bell finally returned to Memphis in 1976 and worked on a variety of projects while continuing to tinker with the mixes of the unreleased tracks. He also did a lengthy stint in his family’s fast-food business. In the summer of 1978, the first two Big Star records were re-issued in the U.K. and Bell finally got a deal to release a single on the Car Record label, owned by musician Chris Stamey. Before Bell could finally get the attention that he had strived for, he was killed when he lost control of his car and hit a light pole on the way home after a band rehearsal.
Bell did not live to see the release of a full album of his material. Rykodisc compiled the best of Bell’s unreleased recordings and issued them as I Am the Cosmos in 1992. Disc 1 of the Rhino set replicates that release. The title cut is a masterpiece that features a stirring vocal from Bell surround by a surging musical landscape that was created after countless hours of studio mixing time. The lyrics echo the emotional tug-of-war that Bell was fighting at the time. The production captures the Beatle influence, which is re-enforced when Bell slips several lines of “yeah,yeah, yeah” in his vocal. Tracks like “Better Save Yourself” and “I Got Kinda Lost” make it clear that Bell could deliver a spirited rock performance and bands like Cheap Trick are still working in a similar vein. The atmospheric “Look Up” examines Bell’s spiritual beliefs. “Get Away” and “I Don’t Know” are different versions of the same song, with the first take featuring a raucous vocal from Bell with help from Chilton on guitar. The later take is a trio performance with Ken Woodley on bass and Richard Rosebrough on drums. Bell’s vocal is deeper in the mix and the track operates at a faster pace. “You and Your Sister” is gentle ballad of unrequited love that features a string section.
The second disc features the previously mentioned tracks plus alternate takes of many of the tracks on the prior disc. By comparing the various versions, one begins to gain some insight into Bell’s creative process. The extensive notes with this set make it clear that it is impossible to determine where and when Bell finished these mixes. The previously unreleased takes of “I Don’t Know” and “Get Away” give listeners four variations on the same song, with the latter track offering a radically different mix.
Also included is a cut with songwriter Keith Sykes done shortly after Bell’s return to Memphis that features a concise guitar solo from Bell. Another cut finds him supplying the instrumental backing for singer Nancy Bryan on “In My Darkest Hour”. The closing track is a solo guitar piece entitled “Clacton Rag”. This introspective meditation finds Bell capable of making an emotional connection sans all of the production techniques.
This package reminds us that Chris Bell had plenty to offer as an artist. Given that much of the material still sounds relevant after thirty-plus years, it is hard to understand why Bell was ignored for most of his life except for the brief burst of attention surrounding Big Star. He was a compelling singer and a skilled songwriter who had the ability to elevate the power and scope of his work by utilizing the recording studio to his advantage. The extensive notes included with the package provide plenty of detailed info on each track. A big thank you to Rhino Handmade for keeping Bell’s legacy alive for new generations with this outstanding release.