It’s time to stop buying Nirvana records.
No, not those three studio albums. Not Incesticide or Unplugged. I’m talking about the endless procession of box sets, greatest hits compilations, and rarities collections that descend upon the headphoned masses every holiday season like some garish parade of the dead. I’m talking about Kurt Cobain’s Journals and the litany of biographies — authorized and unauthorized — that attempt to shake another crumb of understanding from the tortured singer’s ghost, excavating the mundane aspects of his life as if each were another monolith at Stonehenge.
It’s time to tear down the cult of personality we’ve built around Cobain’s memory, and it’s time to honor his artistic genius by refusing to consume (and pay handsomely for) the scraps of its scraps.
Of course, we still live in the same messy world that Cobain chose to leave, and there are exceptions to every rule. Earlier this year, director Brett Morgen finally achieved what so many have failed at with Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, a comprehensive documentary that actually breathes some new insight into Cobain the artist. In his review of the film, Consequence of Sound’s Justin Gerber called it “the definitive Cobain documentary,” even going so far as to claim that “there is nowhere else to go from here.”
If only that were so. There are always new roads for those who seek to find them, and it would seem that Morgen has joined the ranks of those who seek a bit too zealously. In the process of filming Montage of Heck, the director discovered a number of raw cassette recordings made by Cobain starting around the late 1980s, when he was living with then-girlfriend Tracy Marander.
The tracks range from demos to spoken word pieces, but they do share a few important elements. For one, they’re all plagued with nasty tape hiss and a complete lack of editorial discretion. Oh, and they were all, until now, buried deep inside a box somewhere, presumably by a version of Cobain that was alive enough to decide which of his recordings saw the light of day.
None of this has stopped Morgen and Universal from compiling the unfinished demos into what they’re referring to as “a rare, unfiltered glimpse into Cobain’s creative progression.” What it is, in truth, is a shameless circle jerk of “limited edition” releases that exists solely because the holidays are coming up, and what are the holidays without another superfluous box set tucked under the tree?
But this isn’t your average box set. Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings will be released in multiple formats ($$$), including a Super Deluxe Edition, a 2-LP vinyl edition, and an additional 7-inch single featuring Beatles cover “And I Love Her” and an early demo of “Sappy”, because why the fuck not. After all, the only way to listen to Cobain spend half a song yodeling and the other half dicking around on an out-of-tune guitar (this actually happens on opener “The Yodel Song”) is on 180-gram vinyl, the way that God intended it.
Spoiler alert: Vinyl is not a good format for Montage of Heck, an album that requires a fair amount of skipping around just to qualify as tolerable. I’m using the word “album” loosely here, because this one fails as an album in almost every conceivable way, jettisoning any sense of unity or context in favor of positioning itself as an aural complement to Morgen’s documentary. There’s admittedly something to that, as the only way to possibly make sense of these 31 tracks is to watch the film first. Without it, listening to the album feels like being tossed around on a choppy sea without a compass, and maybe even without a ship.
How much can we really learn about Kurt Cobain from listening to the early demo of “Been a Son”, on which he strums on an unplugged electric guitar and mutters gibberish lines as lyrical placeholders? Does a track like “Reverb Experiment”, a droning bore that’s exactly what the title advertises and yet somehow less, really help us come to terms with the mad genius behind Bleach and Nevermind? Even “You Can’t Change Me/Burn My Britches/Something in the Way (Early Demo)”, a song with clear ties to the latter record, only serves as a curiosity at best. It lacks the strange, watery nihilism of what eventually became Nevermind’s closing track, and as such it’s not worth more than a grunt of recognition.
There is one place in which Montage of Heck succeeds, and that’s in showcasing Cobain’s uncanny ear for pop melodies. “And I Love Her” is a worthy and even haunting cover, offering a brief respite from the storm that surrounds it on all sides. It’s still demo quality, but something about it feels complete, as if the true version of this song should be Cobain sitting alone in a room with a tape recorder on.
It’s probably no coincidence that “Do Re Mi (Medley)” is the final track here, as it’s also the finest Cobain composition that never saw the light of day during his lifetime (another version appeared previously on 2004’s With the Lights Out). If Paul McCartney was born a few decades later and opted for dirty flannel instead of a moptop, this is the kind of tune he might have spawned. It’s a fleeting, fragile glimpse of real genius; too bad it’s nearly crushed under the weight of the album that precedes it.
I keep returning to a part about midway through the film when Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic reflects on how much Cobain feared embarrassment. “Kurt hated being humiliated. He hated it,” he remembers. It’s true that Cobain was notoriously stubborn about how his art was presented in the media. It’s fair to question whether Montage of Heck, with its confessional spoken word pieces and goofball guitar tracks, is the kind of thing that might have mortified him in his lifetime. It’s also fair to question whether Cobain’s personal wishes still matter at this point.
But another question comes to mind even more: When will it end? Are we going to keep dissecting and examining Cobain’s life under a cultural microscope, as if one day all the pieces will fit together and we’ll all feel better about ourselves? Kurt Cobain was an excellent songwriter and musician — undoubtedly one of the best of his time. But to dig ever deeper into the minutiae of his life is to perpetrate one of the worst crimes a society can commit against one of its artists. Despite our best intentions, we’re making him boring.
Essential Tracks: “And I Love Her”, “Do Re Mi (Medley)”