What, exactly, do Nirvana sound like? It’s a tough job cutting your way through to the music of this legendary, blighted band when all their records are so hemmed in by context. How can we judge songs from a decade ago that are permanently linked with cultural change and personal tragedy, whose innovations have been exploited and devalued by tribute-bearers in the interim?
The good?and surprising?news about Nirvana is how well these 15 songs stand up. Fears that the sandblasted, supercharged tracks from Nevermind, in particular, might sound dated prove thrillingly wrong. Just the first eight or nine seconds of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are enough, from Kurt Cobain’s choppy warm-up riff, through Dave Grohl’s formidable kickstart and the dam-burst of power and melody that follows it. The quiet/loud dynamic might be ancient news now, and Butch Vig’s production skills devalued by his gloomy loyalty to Garbage. But “Teen Spirit” astounds, the sense of a band manoeuvring influences?Pixies, Beatles, Black Sabbath, Fugazi even?and originality in an intuitive, anti-cynical way. Often forgotten amid the vitriol, a significant part of Kurt Cobain wanted to be a rock’n’roll star, however much the process scared and disgusted him.
This is the side of Cobain which dominates Nirvana. Plainly, his paymasters at Geffen would like him memorialised as an anthemic figurehead rather than a brilliant contrarian. One suspects Courtney Love prefers it that way, too, since she so keenly denounced punk ethics and underground scenes once they had exhausted their usefulness to her. Thus we get the assimilable, sweeter moments from the early years (“About A Girl”, “Been A Son”, “Sliver”), the hits from Nevermind, and the ones from In Utero that sound most like the hits from Nevermind.
There’s nothing to fault here musically. Still, it does provide a somewhat lopsided view of Nirvana, one where their most splenetic and radical music is quietly afforded second-class status. What’s more, the three tunes selected from Unplugged, including Cobain’s pointed version of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” and coruscating howl through Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”, let him be seen as a neat part of the rock continuum instead of an artist who was in a deep state of conflict over his relationship with traditions. Wonderful music, sure, but the tidying-up of the legacy verges on Stalinist: as if Kurt Cobain has been elected into a private club just to stop him trying to break its windows.
Fortunately, the much-heralded “You Know You’re Right” redresses the balance somewhat. Recorded in January 1994, it’s Cobain’s one last great subversion of his formula: the quiet/loud routine mangled into a wracked, venomous dirge. As the token unreleased track, it’s sensational. Better still, as a riposte to an industry that smugly assumed Nirvana would ditch that nasty screaming business and turn into R.E.M., it proves that Kurt Cobain still had the spirit for a fight, and the compulsion to make uncompromised, visceral music, even as his will to live was slipping away.