Nirvana: With the Lights Out (DGC)

THE DOMINANT MOTIF of Nineties rock was backward time travel. In the UK, the likes of Supergrass and Oasis seemed to have discovered The Beatles via Buzzcocks and Sex Pistols; in the US, Nirvana filtered Seventies punk through Eighties stadium rock.

It is a truism to state that Kurt Cobain’s dissheveled, dressed-down power trio were the most important American rock band of their decade: let’s go further and nominate them as just about the only important US rock band of the Nineties, towering over their contemporaries to the same extent as Jimi Hendrix, another left-handed guitarist who started out in Seattle and died at 27, did over his.

Like Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, Cobain unwittingly validated the authenticity of his uniquely depressive songwriting by topping himself: yep, he really was as unhappy as he said he was. Like any true neo-punk, Cobain was intensely suspicious of music-biz success; the more successful Nirvana became, the more alienated and angst-ridden Cobain got. Nirvana’s whisper-to-a-scream dynamics embodied their contradictions: simultaneously raw and sensitive, heavy and melodic, powerful and vulnerable.

The fact that this boxed set – three audio CDs and a DVD – arrives just in time to mark the tenth anniversary of Cobain’s shotgun suicide is as much due to a protracted wrangle between Cobain’s widow Courtney Love and the surviving members of the trio, bassist Krist Novacelic and drummer Dave Grohl (the latter now seriously reincarnated as the frontman for The Foo Fighters) as to any marketing notion of salable historicity.

Boxed sets tend to come in two basic flavours: the one-stop-shop for those who require the more-or-less complete works in a single purchase, and the treasure trove of esoterica for the devoted fan who already has everything officially available. Bulging with early rehearsal tapes and late home demos, With The Lights Out places itself firmly in the latter camp. Hardcore Nirvanoids will enjoy the frisson of hearing a key lyrical line from their iconic breakthouigh hit ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ emerging from the murk of a 1987 airshot performance of an earlier song entitled ‘Help Me I’m Hungry’; novices will marvel at a band equally willing, ready and able to cover Led Zeppelin and Leadbelly without incongruity.

The best band of their generation? Without a doubt. The supreme irony: one gifted but dysfunctional working-class kid’s urge to save himself through self-expression leads him to fame, fortune and a totally unwanted position as ‘spokesman for a generation’, screwing him up so badly that he tops himself. With The Lights Out should have been a tale of triumph. Instead, it’s a tragic horror story which rocks you to tears.

© Charles Shaar MurrayObserver Music Monthly, 12 December 2004

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