A Window Seat Into the Genius of Chris Bell

Chris Bell – I Am the Cosmos (Complete) (Omnivore Recordings) review

The most complete look at Big Star founder’s lone solo album

Few artists have sustained such a devoted, cult following as former Big Star member Chris Bell.  Almost 40 years after his untimely passing in 1978, his brief output continues to be reexamined.  Omnivore Recordings has attempted to create the final word on Bell’s only solo record by issuing an expanded, 2-CD I Am the Cosmos, featuring the original album, alternate mixes, and an additional eight, never-before-heard tracks.

There’s something about these recordings that pulls you in.  Perhaps it’s that the mood changes drastically from song to song – alternating between the magnificence of “I Am the Cosmos” to the angry, condemning “Better Save Yourself” and the fragility of “Speed of Sound,” then the psychotic echo of “Get Out.”  All of this culminates in the absolutely breathtaking “You and Your Sister,” featuring a wondrously frail Bell lead vocal, and harmonies from former Big Star bandmate, Alex Chilton.

The utterly amazing thing is how Bell’s voice could change in so many ways.  Many of these tracks simply don’t sound like the same person.  He screams over the loud power pop of “I Don’t Know,” then lets his voice soar for the angelic “Look Up,” before turning in a somber reading of “Though I Know She Lies.”

There’s a bevy of bonus material, mostly slightly altered versions of the album’s original tracks.  What does “I Am the Cosmos” sound like with just acoustic guitars?  What about one with an extended guitar solo?  And a fourth one with piano?  It certainly gives you an opportunity to examine these tracks in minute detail.  Yet, much of it soon becomes redundant.  Of note is an early version of “You and Your Sister,” featuring a Mellotron.  There’s also a far-superior rendition of “Though I Know She Lies” that was mixed for the recent Big Star documentary.

In the spirit of completeness, included here are a pair of tracks featuring Bell as a sideman – the gorgeous “In My Darkest Hour,” features vocalist Nancy Bryan, while “Stay With Me” contains vocals by Keith Sykes and a fantastic guitar solo by Bell.

In comparing these tracks to the original, Rykodisc issue, which came out in 1992 – there are marked differences.  “I Am the Cosmos” is sped up considerably for this release, recreating the actual single version. Same goes for “You and Your Sister.”  And, every track is improved sonically – this is the best these recordings have ever sounded.

The set comes with a booklet featuring many unseen photos of Bell, plus extensive liner notes, delving into Bell’s career both before and after Big Star.  This insight helps make sense of the hefty alternate versions, and gives a timeline of when everything was recorded.

This Complete I Am the Cosmos gives us a window seat into the genius of Chris Bell. —Tony Peters