Nirvana: With The Lights Out

At last, the Cobain motherlode: three CDs and one DVD, with 81 songs, 68 unreleased.

YOUR FEELINGS TOWARDS this box set will most likely depend on which side you come down on in the case of Nirvana Vs Love: The Battle For Cobain’s Royalties. For the past few years, Kurt’s widow Courtney Love has tried to suppress the release of this clutch of raw experiments, rehearsal demos and live tracks, while Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Chris Novoselic have gamely argued that the people needed to hear the legacy of their former bandmate in toto. And, oh yeah, there was the matter of charging 70 or so pounds for a holiday gift, thus fattening the already overstuffed coffers of everyone involved in this project.

They’ve worked it out, apparently. Love finally gave the thumbs-up, while Novoselic was the most hands-on, culling his impressive archive of home movies and concert videos for the DVD. The result? A hardcore fan’s wildest dreams fulfilled.

There are 68 unreleased tracks here, mostly demos featuring Cobain and his acoustic. There are also 90 minutes or so of visual material, including rehearsals from the late ’80s and landmark shows like Dave Grohl’s first live date. If you like your Cobain unfiltered, strung-out and murky then this box is heavier than heaven. If you’re more inclined to put on Nevermind when you’re feeling nostalgic about your hairline, this is a tough road to hoe.

With The Lights Out is basically lots of warm-ups, tentative and otherwise, for the three official studio albums, BleachNevermind and In Utero; various radio performances and Incesticide extras (an outtake of an outtake? The mind reels), aborted projects and some John Peel tracks. What the narrative arc reveals across three discs is the evolution of Cobain, a gangly suburban heavy metal whack job who became an omnipotent symbol of suburban fear and self-loathing, saving the darkest stuff for last. This box may be disturbingly voyeuristic, but it’s consistently strong. Thanks to the creepy kicks of In Utero, demos including ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and ‘Milk It’, and a stone great ‘All Apologies’ to finish, With The Lights Out is that rare behemoth in which the last disc isn’t a pathetic quota filler; no Willie Nelson duets and dance remixes mucking up the works here.

With The Lights Out is not one of those anthologies that reveals unexplored facets of an artist’s creative process in the way ‘Good Vibrations’ showed us how Brian Wilson fumbled with countless iterations of ‘Heroes And Villains’ before nailing it, or how The Beatles’ Anthology laid bare Lennon and McCartney’s penchant for writing melodies before lyrics. Kurt Cobain’s sensibility was fully formed when he created the first version of Nirvana in the late ’80s.The earliest originals here — ‘Anorexorcist’, ‘Mrs Butterworth’, ‘If You Must’, ‘Pen Cap Chew’ — sound like prototypes for the canon, sludgy hunks of vitriol with circular Sabbath riffs played low on the fretboard.

If there’s anything to be gleaned from the early material, it’s that Cobain was a Led Zep fan before he discovered The Vaselines. The first track is a cover of ‘Heartbreaker’, taken from the band’s very first show in 1987. After an audience member’s request for the song, Cobain yells: “I don’t know how to play it,” before launching into a ragged but righteous cover, with an endearing stumble through the guitar solo. There’s also a cover of ‘Moby Dick’ featuring The Melvins’ Dale Crover as Bonzo, while the DVD finds a young Kurt in Novoselic’s bedroom, singing to a wall to avoid feedback while charging through ‘Immigrant Song’ with Novoselic and Chad Channing. Given Cobain’s gift for the stone-age riff, is it really any wonder?

Much of the box is taken up with bad-fi demos recorded alone on an acoustic guitar that are alternately desultory, spooky and infantile. ‘Beans’, an undated demo, finds Cobain picking out a woozy two-note figure and singing some nonsense in a voice that sounds treated with nitrous oxide. ‘Clean Up Before She Comes’ is a fascinating anomaly, a gorgeous pop tune with stacked contrapuntal harmonies, touched with a little Smiley Smile pixie dust. ‘Polly’, Nevermind‘s David Lynchian spousal abuse song, is tackled both as a torpid acoustic number and as a mini suite with cocktail jazz rimshots leading into a rock-hard blast-off. Both are inferior to Nevermind‘s version, but A-B comparisons should make good web log fodder.

The juiciest dusty grooves here are three tracks taken from a scuttled Leadbelly tribute project featuring ex-Screaming Trees drummer Mark Pickerel. On ‘They Hung Him On A Cross’ and ‘Ain’t It A Shame’, Cobain reaches down into his lower register and growls lines like: “Ain’t it a shame to have a drink on Sunday/When there’s Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday?” As a blues singer, Cobain leaves every jangly nerve exposed. Too bad there isn’t more of this stuff.

There are a lot of drummers on the box, an open audition for the throne that would eventually belong to Grohl. And while Channing — the Pete Best of Grunge — acquits himself nicely on demos for’ Pay To Play’ and ‘Even In His Youth’, With The Lights Out really clicks into place when Grohl assumes the position (curiously, Grohl makes his first appearance here as a bass player on a 1989 ‘Drain You’ demo).

The cassette of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ Cobain sent to Butch Vig is here, and it kicks as powerfully as the final spit-shined version; Grohl’s Bonham bass pedal is in full effect and Cobain’s gravelly yelp cuts through the condensed mic mono mix like a scythe through dense underbrush. Beholden to no producer, studio time just gave Nirvana the proper decorum to find radio playlists.

That decorum crumbled when Cobain rejected Nevermind‘s crystalline sound in favour of Steve Albini’s monochromatic dirt-bomb production on In Utero. But listening to the demos for ‘Milk It’, ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and ‘Serve The Servants’, it’s hard to determine exactly what Albini brought to the party, besides the heft of his indie rock CV. Rough-hewn ambience is present and accounted for here, despite the vocals, which are occasionally out of tune.

‘Pennyroyal Tea’ is the In Utero era’s standout track and the high-water mark of this set; Cobain’s kiss-off to noxious stardom as a creepy dirge. Singing in a very soft baritone voice over a spare arrangement (the snare sounds like a soggy egg carton), Cobain is raking through the murk of his battered brain. “I receive crazy money/l’m anaemic royalty“, he croaks, and you believe him.

Those looking for studio crosstalk and other extracurricular nuggets will be disappointed. Aside from an occasional “I just wrote a song, it goes…” or “sounds good”, there’s nary a Reg Presley-esque rant to be found. But no fan can ever accuse With The Lights Out of holding out. I doubt there is much more to unearth after this, and given the exhaustive scope of this collection, I don’t think it will be necessary, either.

© Marc WeingartenUncut, January 2005

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