2004 / Music

Review: Nirvana Box Set Gives Glimpse Of Creative Process

Alt-Rock Legends Open Archives

Nirvana always defied expectations.

Photo: DGC Records

Photo: DGC Records

Few at the time thought this little punk trio from the Pacific Northwest, playing an amalgam of hardcore and metal infused with pop-music smarts, and headed up by a cute, scrawny frontman would completely change the music scene as it did in the early ’90s.

Just as unlikely was the prospect that the acrimony that had surrounded the band since mastermind Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide could ever be resolved so as to allow the release of all the rumored B-sides, alternate takes, and live cuts that were left languishing in the attics and garages of the remaining band members, their friends and associates. Once again, the band defied.

The box set has been a work-in-progress for nearly a decade. After Cobain’s death in 1994, Nirvana has offered up only three releases: the “MTV Unplugged In New York” album, the live concert compilation “From the Muddy Banks of Wishka,” and 2002’s greatest hits disc.

In fact, it was the release of the greatest hits collection that marked the end of legal war that had threatened to permanently disparage the band’s legacy and tie up any future new releases for years. The lawsuits centered on who would control the band’s future, with battle lines drawn between Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl (who now leads the Foo Fighters).

When a release date of September 2001 was set for the box set (meant to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of “Nevermind”) Love accused Novoselic and Grohl of being merely sidemen in the band and sued to dissolve the partnership that had governed the band’s affairs since Cobain’s death. Grohl and Novoselic eventually countersued (accusing Love of trying to hijack the group and its lucrative catalog in her own tug-of-war with her then record label) and the box set promptly disappeared from the store release schedules.

Both sides wound up spending the better part of a year bad mouthing each other to assorted media outlets, releasing open letters to fans, and posting testy notes on online message boards. By fall 2002, however, the legal logjam cleared and a peace deal was finally struck allowing for the release of the greatest hits album that included a buzz-worthy unreleased track, “You Know You’re Right,” which Love had seemed particularly keen to exclude from the proposed box set.


What makes the box set so valuable has more to do with historical and artistic reasons than for the quality music within. There are no golden nuggets here that inexplicably failed to make the band’s four albums, and none of these discs would displace anything in your CD changer.

Like the release of Cobain’s private journals, these 61 tracks offer a glimpse of an artist and songwriter creating, captured in mid-progress. Listeners typically only see the finished product of an artist’s labors, and here we see the strings controlling the puppet.

The songs contained here are like the outtake scenes of Nirvana’s videos that repeat in the menu on the box set’s DVD. You recognize the videos’ background and its core elements are familiar, but the subjects are in different spots and/or key components are missing. In essence, listening to the tracks help bring to light the deeper meanings and motivations behind the songs and reinforce the quality of the band’s performances in the final products.

The first disc covers the years 1987 through 1989, delving into Nirvana’s formative years. Cobain and Novoselic work through a number of drummers and flimsy originals until Cobain starts to find his own creative voice near the end of the disc, demo-ing nearly perfect arrangements of “Polly” and “About A Girl,” songs that will become classics in just a few short years.

Disc 2 is a spillover of the first, basically documenting the pre-fame Nirvana up to the “Nevermind” era and the immediate onset of their celebrity. Here too, Cobain is continuing to grow as a songwriter, and the group sounds increasingly stronger and more distinct.

But as is the case with Disc 1, too few of the songs merit repeat listens. If anything, they reinforce the decisions the trio made not to include this material on their records, or that more work was needed. There’s no second guessing. The Butch Vig mix of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” offers a sped up and more thrashing stab at the song, but fails to dislodge the “Nevermind” original.

The inclusion of “Old Age” and “Verse Chorus Verse” — both were outtakes from the “Nevermind” sessions and longtime fan favorites — should satisfy only the Nirvana completists. Cobain sings both tracks in a near deadpan and so they lack the emotional bite of the material that made the album. (Another track of interest is a recording of the aforementioned “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” with a nearly identical arrangement as the one Cobain used on “Unplugged,” but this dates from more than four years before.)

The brief exceptions are a couple of tracks with Cobain singing and playing with only his acoustic guitar. A radio recording of “Been A Son” robs listeners of a real gem by fading out far too early. A demo of “Sliver,” taken slow, reveals Cobain’s simple yet infectious melody. Apart from the subpar sound quality, it’s arguably better than the re-recorded, electric version released on “Incesticide.”

In contrast to most of this box set, the brutal thud of “I Hate Myself And Want To Die” and power-pop stomp of “Sappy” might, in retrospect, have earned spots on “In Utero.” Same goes for “Marigold,” a dark, pretty ditty with Grohl on lead vocals. The understated song has a deceptively simple hook and its lyrical vagueness seem closer in spirit to Cobain’s writing style than the more liner approach Grohl has taken with his Foo Fighters material. Acoustic demo “Do Re Mi” is a tantalizing, yet rough sketch of a song that might have come on a fifth record. Unfortunately, that will never come.

Of this box set, the DVD is the biggest waste of time. The disc starts with the band circa 1988 smash through nine slightly tedious, garage-rock songs in front of a few friends in Novoselic’s mother’s house. Sure, it’s interesting to watch the group rock out in a tiny room with fake wood paneling behind them, but would anyone really watch this just for fun? I doubt it. The other 11 clips are snippets from the group’s live performances throughout the years — most of shaky quality and worth.

And why aren’t the band’s videos on here? Given the amount of attention and time Cobain devoted to the look and concept of the group’s videos and his background as an artist (remember all those fetal collages that adorned “In Utero”?), you’d think they’d warrant inclusion on this. We can safely assume another DVD is already on music execs’ minds.

So, the central question remains: Is “With The Lights Out” — with a retail price north of $50 — a gift that will warm your slacker’s heart? Or is it the musical equivalent of a lump of coal?

While it’s always wise to appraise the tastes of who you’re buying it for, and although this album has enough songs to bore even the most ardent fans, don’t underestimate the ability of Cobain and Nirvana to win over hearts. They’ve defied expectations before and they can do it again.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2004 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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