Photo by Chris CuffaroNirvana's impact into pop culture was so intenseand confounding that to this day, many of us—fans, bootleggers and self-styled cultural archivists alike—still sift through their curiously inconsistent material remains just to figure out exactly how they made it happen. Singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain was a publicly conflicted songwriter; a sad, sardonic and incontrovertible talent; and a perfectionist who labored over his deceptively simple material for years. But there was a private heart to his music he never cared to share—he'd refine and rewrite songs on his own until he deemed them ready for public consumption—and only now, a decade after his death, are we able to examine the many long-abandoned works-in-progress and to wonder what could have been.
The four-disc box set With the Lights Out (available now on DGC) is a dramatic counterpart to Cobain's previously published journals, presenting a catalog of his and his band's ideas and ambitions, from their first-ever performance to the final months of the band in 1994. Despite the scrapbook feel to four-track acoustic pieces such as "Do Re Me" and "Clean Up Before She Comes," even the roughest demos sound like complete songs—though you can't help sensing Cobain kept much of his home recording close to his chest. As he'd scrawled on the cover of his journal, "If you read, you will judge." But that's not stopping anyone: here we are now, entertain us.
With the Lights Out begins and ends with cover songs, stylistic bookends to Nirvana's hard rock, experimental, noise and bubblegum pop. Disc one starts off the 81-track collection with a relatively straightforward version of Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker," recorded at the band's live debut at a party in 1987, and disc four (a DVD of live footage) concludes with a subdued and reverent reading of Jacques Brel's pop hit "Seasons In the Sun." In between is a chronology of B-sides, demo versions of the hits and many songs previously unreleased—although several tracks have been repeatedly bootlegged over the past decade; you may want to try typing "outcesticide" into Soulseek some night. A practice recording of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (which sounds like it had been chewed up in Kurt's old boom box) is so energetic and powerful it instantly resurrects the intense impact the song had when it was first released. Elsewhere, a succession of drummers (including Melvins skinsman on loan Dale Crover) show the band rummaging through its range of influences, tempering the urge toward punk esotericism while gradually allowing Cobain's love of pure pop to surface. Acoustic tracks such as "Opinion" and "Old Age" are some of Cobain's finest work, while outtakes like three Leadbelly covers and "The Other Improv" show Nirvana's more playful side.
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Obviously, it's a must-have for any Nirvana fan, especially for the several diamonds in the rough. And the set underscores the also-obvious point that Cobain lived for music, as well as reminds us how much he hated to share it with the very people who had taunted him for not fitting in. As shown here, Nirvana may have moved away from punk songwriting, but a fierce iconoclasm stayed with them till the very end. "I must be one of those narcissists who only appreciates things when they're alone," Cobain wrote in his last composition—the note found alongside him in his Seattle apartment. With the Lights Out sheds new light on the immense talent and passion of Nirvana—even though its sensitive, volatile songwriter probably would have preferred to keep us in the dark.