With its chorus of double-tracked, serrated, drowsy bellowing, “You Know You’re Right” is the most Sabbath-esque song Kurt Cobain ever wrote. The last recording of his short career centers around harsh drones and repetitions. It is not upset and losing it; it is upset and inert. Cobain sings it with certainty. Here, after Nevermind, after the MTV enshrining and all the interviews, he knows what turns the crowd on.
In this single-disc collection’s one jarring segue, “You Know You’re Right” is followed by “About a Girl,” from Bleach, written under the influence of early Beatles. There’s a big difference between 1989 and 1994: Cobain loved jubilant teen nonsense to the end (he was a serious Beat Happening fan) but had moved under a cloud.
Neither track is by the great rock band, the one that for a time after it ended stunned rock into near-irrelevance. The band as popular history knows it begins with track five, which is called “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” where the trio strikes that wise, contorted pose that took it through two albums: I am bored, I am cranked up; I’ll kill you, I am dovelike; I loathe fame, I am fame; I miss the comfort in being sad.
A surprising continuity rolls through all the familiar songs on the set; new juxtapositions yield little. The band had its style mapped out, and Cobain was one of pop’s unerratic perfectionists; though drawn to punk chaos, he also saved it for end-of-album filler.
Collections typically reveal the collector’s agenda, but you can’t say what aspect of Cobain the set favors, since starting with Nevermind he presented one tormented, often contradictory aspect. His songs went from sad and sorry to sad and angry to sad and loving; the ones selected here are all troubling, and all good. (Too bad about the exclusion of “On a Plain,” “Stay Away,” “Serve the Servants” or “Scentless Apprentice.”)
But Nevermind and In Utero are like best-hits collections: one memorable song after another. They were already the result of a selection process. Boiling down three albums (and some odds and ends) to one feels beside the point.