Kurt Cobain’s first solo record – recently released 21 years after his 1994 suicide and paired with a suspect “documentary” film project of revisionist mythmaking and iconography – is a jumbled, scraping-barrel-bottom mess of an affair.
It’s not to say that, for die-hard fans, there are not things to like about it. There are moments of, I’ll go so far as to say, genuine beauty. The opener “The Yodel Song” shows how easily Cobain could toss off a Nirvana-style melody without giving a second thought, and tunes like “The Happy Guitar” make you feel like, alone sometimes, Cobain genuinely just had a good time making music, even if – maybe especially if – there was no audience to intrude sans himself. And, yes, the acoustic take on “And I Love Her” and the instrumental “Letters To Frances” are sweet.
But for every engaging moment (an epic “Do Re Mi,” a frequently bootlegged “Sappy” demo, the Melvins-ish “Reverb Experiment”) there’s a lot of grime. The scattered montages and audio collages, while interesting ephemera, are dated sonically and haven’t aged well. “Rehash” is cock-rockish and misdirected. A “Scoff” demo, among others, is short and awkward. I have no idea why daughter/uber-producer Frances Bean Cobain even gave the green light to include some of the Fecal Matter-era stuff (which Kurt had mixed feelings about anyway). And spoken track “Aberdeen” is so obviously intended to build the Cobain legend and bankroll, the whole thing’s pretty gross. (And, from sources, Kurt’s just fibbing and the tale’s not all that accurate.) I mean, if you’re aiming low, why not just include a reading of the suicide note? If you’re going to be invasive and stomp on the grave, INVADE!
Now, there are musicians who thrive on releasing records, kind of like parts of this, that let people in on and behind “the process,” especially in indie rock circles, and I’m thinking of a Cobain contemporary like Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow. But Cobain thrived on a finished product and a scripted one, even on “outtakes;” we have to remember that Nirvana’s best-selling record, Nevermind, was a pretty polished stone. And what ever happened to grabbing a couple recordings of more widely known nomenclature for release? (No. Not “Teen Spirit.”) Need everything be a super-rare gem?
Cobain’s Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings, as a result, feels like a scruffy demo — and not always the kind that gets you a record deal. Maybe that is the point here. But it doesn’t sound like something he ever would have released. And the fact that the suspect (I’m being generous) Montage of Heck “documentary” project dug up these tapes and dragged them in front of the public post-mortem – to the silence of most of Cobain’s contemporaries, or the cries of types like The Melvins’ Buzz Osbourne – only further illustrates why we need Cobain around as an editor of his own work.
Kurt did have other projects like this in mind, though. In Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana, the only authorized biography of the band released during Cobain’s lifetime, Cobain told scribe Michael Azerrad that he wanted to start a label (dubbed Exploitation Records) and re-release Nirvana’s records on vinyl, remastered on boom boxes to sound like a lo-fi punk rock records or bootlegs.
“It’s just for my own punk rock fantasy of thinking that maybe if Nevermind came out this way, it would sound better,” he told Azerrad.
Maybe this was a little bit of an unfulfilled Cobain fantasy that never really came to the surface, a kind of wish that never really made the radar.
But, no. Even by that stretch of the imagination, though, the disc doesn’t live up to expectations. If this were a record by John Lennon, if would be run out of town on rails. Or better yet, a smarter record executive would have never allowed it to be released. (The Lennon comparison is apt. See “Scream” on Cobain’s record and Lennon’s primal scream therapies.) And, if this were freak-folk or early Ariel Pink art-noise, it wouldn’t get coverage or any attention or even 5,000 copies in sales in week one, as this reportedly did, sad to say.
The verdict? I’m a Cobain apologist to the end so I’ll give to 1, maybe 1.5 stars of 5. Don’t know if I’d buy it again. But, since I’ve bought the record, I’m not returning it, I guess. If that’s the best I can say about Kurt Cobain, though, it’s a sad day for a man who I once idolized. All apologies.