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Nirvana: With the Lights Out

Tim O'Neil

As amazingly important as Nirvana were, they became popular the same way anyone else ever has: they happened to be saying the right thing at just the right time. If their timing had been off by just the merest fraction, they could have easily fallen into line with the Pixies, the Replacements and Pavement as yet another greatly esteemed but commercially overlooked indie band.


With the Lights Out

Label: Geffen
US Release Date: 2004-11-23
UK Release Date: 2004-11-22

As the days pass into weeks and the weeks into years, it becomes harder to distinguish figures seen distantly on the rough horizon. People pass away into shadow and are lost, prematurely or not, fading slowly into our memory and our indifference.

It's been a long time, 10 years now, since Kurt Cobain took his own life. Unfortunately, it hasn't become any easier to look past this final tragedy and assess Nirvana on its own merits: the specter of wasted potential and the misery of crushing finality hangs bleakly over every recorded note. Of course, there's also a great deal of selfishness at work: considering how good Nirvana's three extant albums were, is it wrong to wonder at how good their later material could have been?

Perhaps Cobain would have been better off if Nevermind hadn't sold 10 million copies, but a mere 500,000 -- enough to give him a respectable career but not enough to totally envelop him in the culture of celebrity that exacerbated his illnesses and speeded his premature end. As amazingly important as Nirvana were, they became popular the same way anyone else ever has: they happened to be saying the right thing at just the right time. If their timing had been off by just the merest fraction, they could have easily fallen into line with the Pixies, the Replacements and Pavement as yet another greatly esteemed but commercially overlooked indie band. I think that would probably have been just enough fame to keep him happy. Perhaps he'd be sitting somewhere as we speak, sharing a cup of Pennyroyal tea with Frank Black and Michael Stipe, instead of moldering in the grave of our communal memory. Maybe I'd be writing a review of the definitive Teenage Fanclub box set right now (or, then again, maybe not).

With the Lights Out has been a long time coming. It also appears to be the last significant Nirvana release on the horizon. If what is included here is any indicator of the caliber of material they have in the vaults, I don't anticipate that there is much more to pull from. Fans were shocked two years ago when the Nirvana executors pulled the fantastic "You Know You're Right" seemingly out of thin air. It wasn't just an OK track for a dead guy, it was easily as good as any single released by Nirvana during Cobain's lifetime. The first disappointment with this box is that there are no more surprises left: they only had one "You Know You're Right" up their sleeve.

I have to question just how this box is being marketed. I have a strong feeling that this will be a very popular gift over the holiday season, but that many people who receive the box will be disappointed. This isn't The Nirvana Story, this is The Nirvana Anthology. The majority of the material presented here will appeal only to a select group of hardcore fans, music historians and critics. Selling this box so hard to the casual fans will only result in sore feelings, because most people won't enjoy listening to helium-voiced four-track recordings of people singing about beans (as on "Beans").

That is not to say that the box is without merits, merely that this set will hardly stand as the definitive statement on this definitive group. For those who love the group, it will prove a fascinating record of the group's formative years and creative processes. Cobain's voice remains a marvel in the history of popular music, a dry velvet rasp that could sing a sweet blues lament as easily as it could broadcast a throaty punk scream. There are deep reservoirs of pain running underneath that voice, and it is to our eternal shame that we only realized just how much pain there was until it was much too late.

Its odd to hear from Nirvana again after so much time has passed, even in this truncated, frustratingly incomplete form. The rigorous honesty that stood as the backbone of the "grunge" movement has aged rather well, especially given the modern alternative rock world's preoccupation with ironic facade. There was absolutely nothing ironic about Nirvana, and this brutal guilelessness was as much a weakness as a virtue. Perhaps if they had had some of the Strokes' cool detachment, they wouldn't have ended the way they did -- but then again, if they had been different, they wouldn't have been Nirvana. They were honest and genuine to a fault, and it is this fact that places them head and shoulders above their peers. The Stone Temple Pilots may have been some of the most consistently underrated songwriters of the decade, but they were also unsatisfactorily hollow in places where Nirvana was rounded and firm. It's hard to remember now, since he has become one of the elder statesmen of popular music, but there was a time when even Eddie Vedder was seen as unmistakably false when compared with Cobain's ruthless transparency.

It's hard to look back on the group without pangs of regret and intense loss. As much as anything, this box serves as a final, fitting exhumation of the group's legacy. It's fitting that we remember them as they are here, trapped in amber and eternally incomplete, like The Mystery of Edwin Drood writ large across the psyche of an entire generation. The best way to ensure that history never repeats itself is to remember it, and we will always remember Nirvana as a cautionary tale. If sometimes the great music they produced is obscured by this tragic legacy, the fault for that lies firmly on Cobain's shoulders.

The box begins with a momento of the group's first ever performance, a cover of Led Zepplin's "Heartbreaker". A great deal of the material on the first disc is in this vein, revealing Cobain's not-so-hidden history as a headbanger. The dross is presented in equal weight to the gems, which explains the appearance of the aforementioned "Beans", along with similarly deathless compositions such as "Pen Cap Chew". There are flashes of amazing, revelatory content scattered throughout the box, such as a trio of Leadbelly covers recorded by The Jury, a nascent supergroup featuring members of Nirvana and Screaming Trees. Cobain's voice is here at its most terrifying and plaintive, and hearing these early (mostly) acoustic gems it's no stretch to understand why their posthumous Unplugged disc would become an instant classic of latter-day blues.

The first disc is simultaneously the most indulgent and the most revealing portion of the box. There's a lot of stuff here that was obviously never intended for release, and most of this music was recorded long before the Nirvana "sound" had cohered into its final, spectacular form. Material that would later appear on Bleach is introduced as the band, and specifically Cobain's distinctively tuneful approach to pop songwriting, grows and changes to fit their rapidly expanding talents. The second and third discs offer more familiar pleasures, presenting Cobain's songwriting at its height and showcasing the band's fully developed dynamic.

The evolution of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the second disc does not so much illuminate as merely illustrate. Once Cobain hit upon his groove as a songwriter, an act that coincided rather nicely with the birth of the group's wonderfully fat sound, they were basically hitting the proverbial "sweet spot" every time they plugged in. For most musicians, songwriting is a difficult and laborious process, and some might walk away discouraged by just how easy Cobain makes it look.

I think that I shall listen to the third disc most frequently, if only because I have a particular fondness for the rough In Utero period. I'm hardly the first person to take note of the impressive fact that they followed up the biggest pop statement of the decade with a harsh and reductive scab of a record. These incomplete and tentative versions of their best material enable fans to understand just how contiguous the progression of their songwriting actually was: there isn't as much difference between Nevermind and In Utero as many people think.

Ignore Thurston Moore's obnoxious liner notes, which would probably turn you off Nirvana if you weren't already an aficionado. The chronology offered in the booklet is useful in terms of pinpointing their recording history, but does little to place the group in proper context. As I said, this is hardly a set for beginners, and if you are unfamiliar with the group this is certainly not the place to start.

Kurt Cobain was in no position to offer himself up to the pop world as a scapegoat for their angst. In addition to his crippling depression, he also suffered from a lifetime of chronic stomach and respiratory ailments. That he eventually became a junky to offset these agonizing conditions is no surprise. He became the central figure in a new musical movement with barely the wherewithal to keep himself together, let alone the millions of grasping fans who transferred their own despair onto him and his lyrics. He was lonely and fragile and hurting. The best parts of his music reveal the worst facets of his soul.

There is no revelation to be found, no closure or climax. There is merely the onrush of history, obscuring Nirvana's significance and washing any reminders out to sea. While this box exists to offer further tantalizing clues, it cannot offer judgement, only riddles. It's been a long decade, and the only meaning left is our own.

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