Bleach (Sub Pop, 1988)
Nevermind (Geffen, 1991)
Incesticide (Geffen, 1992)
In Utero (Geffen, 1993)
Unplugged in New York (Geffen, 1994)
From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (Geffen, 1996)
Nirvana (Geffen, 2002)
With the Lights Out (Geffen/UMe, 2004)
Silver: The Best of the Box (Geffen/UMe, 2005)
Live at Reading (DGC/Geffen/UMe, 2009)
Bleach (Deluxe Edition) (Sub Pop, 2009)
Only a handful of musicians have been able to catch their zeitgeist and watch their music resonate far beyond their fan base and into the culture at large. Despite the best efforts of demographers and businesspeople to manufacture such phenomena, they always come as a surprise to everyone, especially the artist. Kurt Cobain's legacy and mystery have continued to reverberate, long after his moment overwhelmed his capacity to cope.
A native of Aberdeen, WA, whose parents divorced when he was eight, Cobain found solace from dysfunction in music—first the Beatles, then metal, then the hardcore-punk subculture. His first bands, Fecal Matter and the (redundantly) Stiff Woodies, reflected the punk gross-out ethos of rejecting yourself before anyone else can and becoming so offensive that selling out seems impossible. When Nirvana coalesced (Cobain on guitar and vocals, Krist Novaselic on bass, Chad Channing on drums) and released its first album, Bleach, in 1988, the band had already progressed to something beyond punk. Recorded for a mere $600, the album sounded as good as anything could for that amount of money. Indeed, it sounded better than most albums recorded for vastly greater sums, separating Nirvana from the lo-fi punk pack right out of the chute. Bleach became a moderate hit on college radio and the underground/DIY circuit.
The lyrics make no attempt at narrative. They create moods with images, and those moods are mostly tortured, ranging from angst to defiance and back again. The vocals create an unfathomable depth and are clearly the work of someone who has not erected the normal neurotic defenses against the nasty world. "Floyd the Barber" turns the old Andy Griffith Show into a den of child molesters, with the child ending up "smothered in Andy's butt." Punk humor, yeah, but also a critique of idyllic small-town America. Cobain illustrated a long list of other horrors: his own body; his inability to communicate; everyone's bad motives (including his own); and a malicious, utterly confusing adult world that offered relief only in alcohol, cigarettes, and other drugs. These were the themes of his life. The only thing missing was a killer hook.
Picking up drummer Dave Grohl and jumping from Sub Pop to major-label Geffen, where the band notched up the sonics to A-level with producer Butch Vig, Nirvana delivered the killer hook on "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Nevermind's first single proved to be the song of the decade. Overnight, the hair bands of the Eighties knew what it felt like to be Frankie Avalon when the Beatles landed at Idlewild. Everything underground came upstairs and became "grunge" (with flannel shirts as the new uniform of corporate rock), and everything previously upstairs went out the door.
The killer hook is a stuttering chord progression similar to the stuttering chord progression in Boston's "More Than a Feeling," a hit 15 years earlier, utterly transformed through Nirvana's trademark loud/soft dynamic and dark, surreal mood. Following Ezra Pound's call to arms, Cobain made it new. Following the Talking Heads' dictum, he stopped making sense. And he stopped making it in a way that made total sense to those who shared his alienation. It was like the James Dean of Rebel Without a Cause, the Bob Dylan of "Subterranean Homesick Blues," the Eddie Cochran of "Summertime Blues," and the Johnny Rotten of "Pretty Vacant" had been rolled into one shy kid with beautiful eyes and unwashed blond hair. And if there was any doubt about the meaning of the mulatto/albino/mosquito/libido nonsense, there was the video, the most riveting three minutes in the history of MTV. At last, high school portrayed as the pep rally in hell that it is. Millions of post–education-stress-disorder survivors immediately identified. The rest of the album is a relentless run of monster riffs and monstrous imagery, all punched along by arguably the greatest rock rhythm section since Led Zeppelin.
Genuinely ambivalent about success and his own musicality, Cobain avoided the issue and got married to Courtney Love, Hole's front woman, who modeled herself after Sid Vicious' notorious girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. Rather than wait for the followup to the massive success of Nevermind, Geffen collected outtakes and demos and released them as Incesticide, in 1992. Cobain's singing generally lacks the depth he achieved on Bleach and Nevermind, and the killer hooks were simply more standard punk fare. Not bad, not transcendent. His rant in the liner notes is a must-have for any fan in search of clues.
In Utero, produced by Steve Albini, shows Cobain careening wildly between screaming dissonance, with all the needles in the red ("Scentless Apprentice"), and the irresistible hooks that made Nevermind a masterpiece ("Heart-Shaped Box," "All Apologies"). The dissonance outweighs the melody three to one—but the dissonance is compelling. The imagery again reveals someone who can't be anything but nakedly vulnerable and is wondering what he's doing in this world ("Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back").
Amid reports of Cobain's heroin problem and suicide attempts, Nirvana recorded its second masterpiece, Unplugged in New York, in December 1993. Perhaps it's a cliché: The true test of a song is that if it sounds just as good with an acoustic guitar as it does with a band bashing away, you know you've got a great song. But Cobain proved this cliché and displayed the scope of his talent with the stark drama of his ravaged yet strangely innocent voice. He also demonstrated an uncanny ability to pick cover songs, giving the Meat Puppets a moment of deserved aboveground fame ("Lake of Fire" is hilarious and haunting) and Lead Belly his only MTV airtime (the stunning "Where Did You Sleep Last Night").
Could Cobain have revolutionized folk music the same way he had rock? Yeah, but we won't see it. He shot himself on April 5, 1994, leaving millions of fans bereft, desperate to understand, and wanting more of the talent that had flamed out so quickly.
While Cobain didn't leave much unreleased music behind, there was enough to cobble together a few must-have releases. The remaster of Nirvana's debut comes packaged with a surprisingly crisp live recording of a 1990 show from Portland, Oregon. The 1996 live album From the Muddy Banks of the Wiskah features live cuts spanning 1986-1994. And while the quality of the performances ranges, it's fascinating to hear Nirvana's growth from a scrappy stoner-punk band into a mainstream phenomena. For the total live experience, however, it doesn't get much better than the 2009 release Live at Reading, captured at the British music festival in 1992—the peak of "Teen Spirit" mania. The band doesn't sound quite overwhelmed by their newfound fame: "Aneurysm" is a four-minute rush of manic pop-punk and Cobain howls the lyrics of "Teen Spirit" with such ferocity, it's as if he were singing them for the first time. Other highlights include early versions of In Utero's "All Apologies" and "Tourettes" as well as raging covers of Greg Sage and the Wipers' "D-7."
But it is With the Lights Out that offers an essential look into Cobain's evolution as a songwriter. The three-CD/one-DVD box (also available as the pared-down version, Silver) features solo acoustic demos and studio outtakes spanning 1987-1994. It's not angst: Cobain experiments with pitch-shifting effects on the acoustic ditty "Beans," rips into image-conscious rocker dudes on the In Utero outtake "Gallons of Alcohol Flowing Through the Strip," and rhymes "vagina" with "marijuana" on the shambling "Moist Vagina." But there are also gems like "Sappy" and "Old Age," which prove that Cobain could make unforgettable pop songs with nothing more than a few punky power chords.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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