[16 September 2007]
Surely, surveying the pop cultural landscape in 2007, we can finally concede that Kurt Cobain’s impact on music has been considerably overstated. At best it was wishful thinking from overeager rock critics and at it’s worst the tenuous grounds for deifying another would be icon who died too young. In that mold, he was more a James Dean than John Lennon anyway. The countless photos of Cobain disaffectedly slouching, with his shaggy blond hair over his blue eyes, the ripped jeans and Converse All Stars, (see: Gus Van Sant‘s all-style-no-soul Last Days), contribute vastly more to his dubious posthumous mystique than any musical output.
Of course, Nirvana was one hell of a band when they felt like it. But even before Cobain ended his life and his thus said band, Pearl Jam sold loads more records. And, besides, as I write this review, the top 10 albums on the Billboard 200 are: the soundtracks for High School Musical 2 and Hannah Montana 2, a Dave Matthews live release, the 25th volume of NOW, the Hairspray soundtrack, UGK’s Underground Kingz, the Fergie record, (48 frickin’ weeks and still in the top 10!), Jonas Brothers (???), The Real Testament by Plies, and the new Common. So much for the takeover, eh?
That said, the soundtrack for A.J. Schnack’s documentary Kurt Cobain: About a Son not only contains no actual Nirvana music which is a shame, no matter how Michael Azerrad tries to sell it in the liner notes. It also has nothing to say about Cobain’s impact on music, now, 13 years after his death. What it does contain is a not particularly inspired collection of not particularly good songs that presumably influenced the burgeoning voice-of-a-generation, (plus, uh, Ben Gibbard). There is roughly two and a half minutes worth of not particularly revelatory excerpts from Cobain interviews conducted by Azerrad.
Sound bite-wise, we get: “The thing that I’ve always, that I’ve never understood is, like, the classic reaction to someone who complains that’s in the limelight is, like, well, you know, ‘You made your bed, now you have to sleep in it.’ That’s what everyone expects. You’re [in the] public domain now, and everyone has the right to know everything about you.” As a glimpse into Cobain’s famously troubled psyche, such a nugget is, admittedly, more insightful than long shots of Michael Pitt stalking schizophrenically around the Northwestern woods. But the inclusion of, say, “Sliver” (“after dinner I had ice cream / fell asleep and watched TV / woke up in my mother’s arms”) or “Serve the Servants” (“teenage angst has paid off well / now I’m bored and old”) could’ve done the trick far more efficiently.
Music-wise, we get tried-and-tested goods from CCR and Iggy and Bowie and Arlo Guthrie (though nothing we couldn’t also find on stronger compilations), naturally a Leadbelly cut. We are then treated to some unnecessary reminders of how much better Nirvana were than both the punk/hardcore acts that inspired them (Bad Brains, the Melvins) and most of their grunge contemporaries (Mudhoney, Butthole Surfers). Adding some material from Mrs. Cobain’s band or Eddie Vedder’s could’ve made the latter discussion more interesting, but the folks who puts this soundtrack together either didn’t want to go there or couldn’t clear the rights.
At any rate, the most puzzling addition here is R.E.M.’s two-minute throwaway “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1”. Right, Cobain admired Stipe and Co. and stated on several occasions that Automatic for the People‘s folk-rock stylings were more or less where he wanted to take his own group’s sound. If obviousness isn’t a concern, though, why not at least aim higher? “Try Not to Breathe”, maybe? Or “Sweetness Follows”?
The only real treat on About a Son is the Vaselines’ “Son of a Gun”, which is offhandedly funny, effortlessly melodic, and infectious. Not coincidentally, these are also foremost among Nirvana’s virtues, and particularly Cobain’s as a legitimately distinctive songwriter. That’s what Van Sant didn’t seem to get; I’m still holding out some hope that Schnack does, (I haven’t seen his film yet). Plus, it’s a minor relief that they went with “Son of a Gun” instead of, you know, “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam”.