Kurt Cobain’s guttural holler kicks off this live album named after a river that runs through the late singer and guitarist’s hometown of Aberdeen, Wash. Although these concert recordings — taped at various Nirvana shows between December 1989 and January 1994, just three months before Cobain’s suicide — were captured far from Aberdeen’s murky waters and logging mills, the songs represent another chance for Nirvana to resolve the disparity between their humble beginnings as a loud, abrasive punk band and their subsequent meteoric rise to fame. Compiled and sequenced by the band’s surviving members, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah is a proud reclamation of the fury, raw power and incredible songwriting that were all but buried under the crush of analysis that followed Cobain’s untimely death.
It was not Cobain the artist but Cobain the young man who collapsed under the weight of stardom and his coronation as the voice of a generation, the savior of rock & roll. Still, when listening to the inspired performances on Muddy Banks, one can hardly believe that, by the end of his life, Cobain felt like a fraud, as though he was punching a clock each time he walked onstage. But then, drugs and depression are the ultimate deceivers. What actually comes across on this record is the bittersweet mix of rage and despondency in Cobain’s raw exhortations, whether in the grinding pop of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or the two-minute blast of “Sliver.” Muddy Banks is not a tribute to a lost soul; it’s a gift from his friends. Novoselic and Grohl have given Cobain one last opportunity to piss off your parents, wake the neighbors, blow out your car speakers and traumatize the family dog.
An electric live Nirvana disc was slated to be released in late 1994 as part of a double album with MTV Unplugged in New York, then canceled because Novoselic and Grohl were not yet emotionally ready to comb through so much Nirvana music. As it turns out, both Muddy Banks and Unplugged are strong enough to cut through any imposed legacy. But while the latter acoustic set is transcendental in its subdued conveyance of pain, Muddy Banks is its emotional, visceral flip side. It is riotous and liberating, showing Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl — along with In Utero tour guitarist Pat Smear and, on the two ’89 tracks “Polly” and “Breed,” early drummer Chad Channing — in their most natural state, smashing instruments and inducing irreversible tinnitus. Even “Teen Spirit” finds Cobain’s guitar reeling outside the song’s melodic boundaries and sparking new life in that nearly played-out hit. Listening to the roaring crowds pitted against Nirvana’s flailing din, you have to wonder how a band this noisy ever got so fucking famous.
At the start of the record, Cobain’s introductory shrieks are followed by a wandering Novoselic bass line and the warped groan of Cobain’s guitar, which sounds like a monster chain saw. Nirvana then launch into the Sabbath-esque dirge of “School,” from the 1989 Bleach album, a gritty preparation for the ensuing crush. “Aneurysm” finds Cobain’s voice on fire, seething with so much disgust in the line “Love ya so much, it makes me sick” that it’s downright toxic. Yet as rabid as it is in execution, “Aneurysm,” like many other Cobain songs here, remains as infectiously melodic as a Beatles tune.
“Drain You” is beefier, badder and even more backwoods than its studio counterpart on Nevermind. A creeping tom-tom beat backs Cobain’s carefully timed outbursts of guitar while Novoselic’s bass dances on the brink of chaos. The tension finally breaks like an overstressed dam, and the song rushes out as a whitecapped torrent of pure rock & roll bliss. Before slamming into “Milk It,” Cobain screws around with arty guitar tunings; then the band squashes that feigned moment of pretension with a thick slab of Seattle-bred noise. These more complex freakouts are offset by the equally awe-inspiring simplicity of numbers like “Been a Son” and the early Sub Pop single “Sliver,” Cobain’s goofy ode to the childhood travails of being baby-sat by his grandparents (“Had to eat mashed potatoes, stuff like that”). “Sliver” is a reminder to Nirvana wanna-be bands that Cobain’s music was about much more than angst.
Cobain’s singing on this album is as muddled as it ever was — a frustrated but dire attempt to communicate. It’s not as if the words are everything, though, because Cobain’s inflections speak volumes. Coupled with the music, the tension in his voice builds from one song to the next as if these performances were all part of one solid show. By the stop-and-start pummeling of “Negative Creep,” Cobain sounds as though he is literally going to explode.
In his liner notes to this album, Novoselic advises, “Let all the analysis fall away like yellow, aged newsprint. Crank this record up!” There’s one catch: By the end of From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, you want more. Except you can’t have it. When Kurt Cobain died, he took it with him.