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Review: Nirvana’s ‘Incesticide’ Delivers Emotional Honesty

Album reminds fans that Nirvana was a great band before ‘Nevermind’ topped the charts – and that the freedom to fail is the only useful definition of artistic freedom

Nirvana Incesticide album review 1992 read

Nirvana at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards - Rehearsals at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, California

Jeff Kravitz/Getty

The members of Nirvana did not set out to become superstars, didn’t expect to move millions of units, had no way to know that an entire generation was equally tired of being lied to — by their parents, by their government and by the music on the radio. They set out simply to write songs that spoke to their experience of the world and that felt good when played. Loud.

That insistence on emotional honesty is really all that connects the so-called Seattle bands; otherwise Nirvana and Pearl Jam have little in common. Weird Al Yankovic lampooned Kurt Cobain’s withdrawal into incoherence (remember the Who stuttering “My Generation”?) but laughing at “Smells Like Teen Spirit” misses the point: Some emotions are so deeply rooted that only the hideous abuse of an electric guitar and an untutored scream will do to express them. That revelation is hardly unique to Seattle, but few angry young men have so directly dented the consciousness of a culture suckled on sitcoms. The Nirvana compilation Incesticide and Blood Circus’s Primal Rock Therapy freeze fragments of a creative process that four years later miraculously caught the world’s fancy. One band made it, one didn’t, but the roles could as easily have been reversed.

Back in 1988, when Nirvana was just three scraggly guys from Aberdeen with bad equipment and half-formed ideas, Blood Circus seemed hellbent for fame. The group’s crimson vinyl debut, “Two Way Street”/”Six Foot Under,” released before Mudhoney’s brown vinyl “Touch Me, I’m Sick,” is one of the cornerstones of (sigh) grunge, Seattle’s much-hyped urban-suburban synthesis of punk and metal. This collection is virtually all that remains of that dream.

Lacking Mudhoney’s sardonic humor and Nirvana’s surprisingly pretty hooks, Blood Circus’s strength ran to raw, savagely blunt songs. Guitarist-singer Michael Anderson has a gruff voice that howls as if a hot sword were twisting his bowels. His confederates (drummer Doug Day, guitarist Geoff Robinson and bassist T-Man) built crude, durable songs — too clean for punk, too simple for metal — with the precision of factory workers. Their best work (that is, most of it) shares the working-class worldview that propelled blues and country music in the Fifties. “Six Foot Under,” their signature tune, begins: “My daddy was a workingman…. Every time I talked to him he was cold as ice/So he smoked too much/So he drank too much…. That’s how you feel when you’re six foot under the grave.” It’s a stark, unforgiving vision.

Primal Rock Therapy, the five-song 1989 EP that gives this collection its name, sold badly and was largely savaged in what press took notice. The band broke up (and recently re-formed). Five unreleased tracks of comparable cold rage garnish the collection. The years have done nothing to diminish the band’s power and fury.

Nirvana shares much of Blood Circus’s aesthetic; the group simply stayed together and phrased its displeasure with a pop sheen. And had better luck. Incesticide was originally planned as a collection of otherwise unavailable remnants of Nirvana’s early Sub Pop repertoire. The project moved to DGC, presumably to allow for a more comprehensive selection, but it’s far from complete.

Missing are splendid covers of the Velvet Underground, Kiss and the Wipers, plus a half-dozen live tracks released elsewhere and even some of Nevermind‘s B sides. Incesticide‘s tracks are scattered — in no particular order — and drawn from a variety of sources, including Nirvana’s first 1987 demo (“Hairspray Queen”), last Sub Pop single (“Sliver”/”Dive”), the import-only EP Hormoaning (less two tracks), assorted BBC sessions and two local compilations.

The chaos of the collection suggests a struggle to diffuse the burdens of fame. Following Nevermind is a creative straitjacket. Incesticide presents Nirvana in a host of settings, including a whimsical cover of a Devo B side (“Turn Around”) and a pair of tunes from the Vaselines (“Molly’s Lips,” “Son of a Gun”), the Scottish band since mutated into Eugenius. It exposes ragged early sessions (“Downer,” “Mexican Seafood”), reinvents “(New Wave) Polly,” a troubling song about rape, and revives “Dive,” “Sliver” and “Aneurysm.” It creates breathing room.

And that’s the point: Nirvana was a great band before Nevermind topped the charts. Incesticide is a reminder of that and — maybe more important — proof of Nirvana’s ability, on occasion, to fail. The unpolished forces at work and sometimes in conflict within the band are plainly exposed, as is a broader and rougher range of sounds, styles and interests.

That done, the group can go about writing and recording new material. With luck, perhaps Incesticide will remind Nirvana’s audience that freedom to fail is the only useful definition of artistic freedom.

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