I Am the Cosmos (deluxe edition)
Memphis native Bell was a part-time engineer and session guitarist at that city’s now-famed Ardent Studios, spawning ground of Big Star, the quintessential power-pop group he started with former Box Tops singer Alex Chilton and some other high school buddies.
The commercial failure of Big Star’s first album (1972’s “#1 Record”) and a falling out with Chilton led Bell — who had poured himself body and soul into the LP — to leave his own group, after which the rest of the members threw in the towel as well. Nonetheless, when the others reunited the following year, he contributed to a few songs on their sophomore release even as his battles with depression continued.
For the next couple of years, Bell booked sessions in Memphis and France with an eye toward a solo album, and many of the tracks were mixed in London by Geoff Emerick of Beatles fame. But in spite of growing interest in Big Star abroad, a label deal never materialized and he quietly shelved the project at the end of 1975.
Three years later in 1978, just as he was attempting to revive the music career he had all but abandoned, 28-year-old Bell crashed his sports car into a tree and died instantly.
His “lost album” wasn’t released until 1992 by Ryko. Since Ryko is now owned by Rhino parent Warner, Rhino Handmade has seized the opportunity to create a limited-edition expanded reissue, with a second disc of alternate versions and mixes as well as pre-Big Star material, a couple of collaborations and a solo guitar instrumental.
Among the highlights of the bonus material:
1) The original version of the title track, Bell’s crowning achievement, before it was sped up for the single that became the only solo material released before his death.
2) An alternate version of “Speed of Sound,” sans fingernail marimbas and with an electric guitar solo instead of a Moog solo.
3) An alternate mix of “Fight at the Table,” minus Jim Dickinson’s funky Jew’s-harp-style synthesizer.
All the hubbub is well-deserved: The posthumous album shows that Bell’s hand in Big Star’s sound was just as heavy as the more-celebrated Chilton’s, if not more. On “I Am the Cosmos,” his melancholy strumming and bittersweet vocals on ballads complement the unbridled riffing and urgent wailing on rockers, much the same as on “#1 Record.”
Most impressive is how the intensity of the dark and often spiritual subject matter, driven by the artist’s grappling with personal demons, takes the music beyond mere distillation of Beatles-Byrds-Kinks influences. Bell’s emotions ran deep and may have been his undoing, but along the way he made some incredible music.
1. I Am The Cosmos
2. Better Save Yourself
3. Speed Of Sound
4. Get Away
5. You And Your Sister
6. I Got Kinda Lost
7. Look Up
8. Make A Scene
9. There Was A Light
10. I Don’t Know
11. Fight At The Table
12. Though I Know She Lies
1. Looking Forward* – Icewater
2. Sunshine* – Icewater
3. My Life Is Right – Rock City
4. I Don’t Know (alternate version)*
5. You And Your Sister (alternate version)*
6. I Am The Cosmos (extended alternate version)*
7. Speed Of Sound (alternate version)*
8. Fight At The Table (alternate mix)*
9. Make A Scene (alternate mix)*
10. Better Save Yourself (alternate mix)*
11. Get Away (alternate version)*
12. You And Your Sister (acoustic version)
13. Stay With Me* (with Keith Sykes)
14. In My Darkest Hour* (with Nancy Bryan)
15. Clacton Rag (instrumental)*
Total time: 1:40:13
label’s “I Am the Cosmos” page