Are You into Guilt?: Nirvana’s Great Lost Single

Today marks the 17th anniversary of the suicide of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, so in tribute to Mr. Unwilling Voice of a Generation I’d like to briefly draw attention to one of his group’s underappreciated gems. Specifically, I’m talking about the first brand-new release the grunge trio unleashed upon the world after conquering the mainstream with its blockbuster second album Nevermind–a song the group elected to issue on indie label Touch & Go as a split single with Texas noise rockers the Jesus Lizard.

It’s wonderfully perverse that Nirvana put out “Oh, the Guilt” in such a manner. Prior to the single’s February 1993 release, Nirvanamania was still riding high, as evidenced by the Christmastime arrival of the rarities collection Incesticide to satiate fans eagerly awaiting a new studio album. So what did the group follow that with? A rarity! The single had a worldwide pressing of 200,000 copies (only a fraction of the million-plus sales “Smells Like Teen Spirit” racked up in the United States alone), with many of them issued as vinyl records, then considered a dead format by all but the tiniest of labels. It’s now widely available due to its inclusion on the 2004 box set With the Lights Out, but in case you haven’t had the opportunity or drive to scour through three dense discs of odds-and-ends to uncover it, it’s high time you learned that “Oh, the Guilt” is one ripping piece of scuzz-filled rock

Recorded by Barrett Jones in an April 1992 session, the painfully raw production on “Oh, the Guilt” points the way towards the obstinate abrasion of Nirvana’s third album, In Utero (1993). The other day when I wasn’t even listening to the track, out of nowhere I though to myself, “The guitar tone in that song sounds plain gross”. When coupled with the sound of the guitar pick scrapping across the strings during the verse section fits and stops, the whole sensation makes my skin scrawl. And I like that. But it isn’t just the rough-and-ready rawness that stimulates the ears and plagues the body. “Oh, the Guilt” adheres to Cobain’s winning songwriting formula, which ensures that the heavy riffs are balanced out with catchy sing-song melodies and classic pop arrangement techniques, with everything pulled together by one intense studio performance. This means that the transition from the stop-start verses to the tension-building prechoruses to Cobain screaming his head off in those one-word choruses as if he’s being operated on without anesthetic will have you banging your head like any one of Nirvana’s recognizable radio hits would. If you can stomach the sonic sickness, “Oh, the Guilt” is worth wrecking your eardrums for today.