Excessive? Definitely. But so was everything else about Nirvana. They tried too hard, screamed too loud, made a mess out of all they touched. Kurt Cobain jammed his tunes with more emotional intensity than they could hold, blowing his cool at a time when the rock world was into playing it safe. His band rocked so exuberantly, it made other bands sound halfway committed. They pushed it too far. They checked out too fast. Excess, both the heroic and the stupid kinds, was Nirvana’s whole story. And they made it sound like sick fun.
With the Lights Out is total excess: three discs of outtakes, B sides, acoustic demos and boombox rehearsal tapes, plus a DVD of raw early footage. Loads of these songs haven’t even been rumored on the hardcore Nirvana-bootleg circuit. For starters, there’s Cobain’s 1989 home recordings, with a scary version of Leadbelly’s “They Hung Him on a Cross.” From Nirvana’s first show, in March 1987, there’s an awesomely inept blast at Led Zep’s “Heartbreaker.” There’s an early demo of “Sliver,” sad enough to slice up your heart, with the scared little kid in the song singing, “Grandma, take me home” through Cobain’s barely adult voice.
But the prizes are the full-fledged Nirvana songs that got away: “Verse Chorus Verse,” “Old Age,” “Anorexorcist,” “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die,” the B side “Curmudgeon,” the hilarious stoner goof “Moist Vagina.” “Do Re Mi” is an acoustic lament Cobain taped in his bedroom just weeks before his death. The long-bootlegged “Blandest” is one of Nirvana’s toughest songs ever — Cobain yowls about a girl he likes (“You’re my favorite/Of my saviors”) over frantic electric fuzz. Every time he takes it to the bridge, he signals the band with that beaten-dog yelp — “Hey!” — that defines his voice the way “Good God!” defines James Brown. Everything Cobain was trying to articulate about toxic love is right there in that “hey!” Who besides Nirvana could have blown off a song this great?
The DVD footage is nuts — check the 1988 jam at Krist Novoselic’s mom’s house, with Cobain screaming “The Immigrant Song” at the wall as a friend tries to create a strobe effect by flicking a light switch on and off. But you can’t top the naked demo of “Heart Shaped Box,” which has doomier lyrics (“I wish I could catch your cancer/When I am bad”) and a bent noise-guitar solo. Like all boxes, heart-shaped and otherwise, With the Lights Out is for true-blue fans only. But if you think you want it, you do. More, please.