When talk turns to the late-'70s power pop outfit Big Star, the focus tends to be on co-founder Alex Chilton, the idiosyncratic singer-songwriter who contributed to all its great early albums and who in a previous life sang lead on the Boxtops’ 1967 chart topper “The Letter.” But the long series of Big Star-related releases that have appeared in recent months have offered more and more evidence that Chris Bell, who started the group with Chilton, played at least as large a role in its early music.
Bell left the band after its debut album and died in a car crash in 1978, becoming a member of the “27 club,” the strangely large group of rock musicians who died at that age. He released a grand total of two solo tracks during his lifetime, but since then, more has trickled out. I Am the Cosmos, a frequently superlative recording that he made in 1974 and ’75 in the wake of Big Star’s demise, appeared in 1992 and in an expanded version in 2009. A few months ago, the Omnivore label released Bell's early recordings on Looking Forward: The Roots of Big Star. And now comes that label’s definitive two-CD version of I Am the Cosmos, which includes everything on the two earlier editions of it plus 10 additional tracks (eight of them previously unreleased), as well as a 28-page booklet with essays and extensive track notes and credits.
The album’s effusive, melodic songs evidence Bell’s love of the Beatles and other British pop as well as his gentleness and vulnerability. (Think Nick Drake meets Rubber Soul.) “You and Your Sister” is an indelible, acoustic-sounding love song, as delicate and sweet as, say, George Harrison’s “Something.” Songs like “There Was a Light” and “Though I Know She Lies” convey the same combination of melody and melancholy that made much of Big Star’s catalog so arresting.
The bonus material consists mostly of alternate versions and mixes of the original album; the title cut and “You and Your Sister,” for example, appear four times each. This might sound like a bit much, but after you hear the original record, I suspect you’ll agree that the material is good enough to justify release of everything in the vaults.
If you love Big Star, you’ll love this album, too. And if you’re not familiar with that group or its members, this is as good a first door to open as any.