Posthumous releases from departed artists often flail to do the impossible--to provide the music so violently and abruptly silenced by, say, Jeff Buckley's Mississippi swim, Tupac's murder, or Kurt Cobain's suicide. The best offer the faintest and most subjective of clues to what that music might've sounded like, the worst sour the legend with the taint of opportunism, diluting the art that sired it.
Certainly, Kurt Cobain's legacy has tarnished lately. There was the shoddy if honest live album; there was the neutering MTV Unplugged set, which sold Kurt's angst to a namby-pamby audience who balked at the raw honesty of In Utero and needed a sweetener; there are the thousands of posters and T-shirts, portraying Kurt as some Gen X James Dean, mute and emasculated, just a pair of sensitive blue eyes for moody teens to moon over.
This cruelest cut was dulled, for a while, by the endeavors of the dedicated souls behind bootleg series like Outcesticide, working hard to collate any and all Cobain ephemera for the driven fan, which, in their scattered drabs of intimate demos, live moments, and radio appearances, revealed a further depth to Cobain and his music, Nirvana caught in relaxed, rough, tentative form. Consider those volumes the lurid unauthorized biographies, though, in comparison to Geffen's new three-CD/one-DVD box set, With the Lights Out, long-mooted and controversial, but finally hitting the shelves on November 23.
Ignore the awful sleeve, an outtake from a Rolling Stone photo shoot that clumsily underlines Nirvana's existential punk/corporate dichotomy with much less subtlety than Cobain's own artistic explorations. Although the sleeve does offer a clue to the contents of the set, and illuminates with sensitivity, insight, and authority the many conflicts and contrasts that inspired Cobain's music, and the poignantly temporary sense he made of it within his music.
If the armchair psychoanalyst can surmise the divorce of his parents at an early age as having an enormous, catastrophic effect on the young Kurt, then the music of Nirvana, as presented in this box set, can be seen as an attempt to resolve the tensions between the conflicting packages sent to his dad by Columbia House: the Sex Pistols and Led Zeppelin and Beatles albums that, pre-Nirvana, seemed at odds with one another. So here Kurt is, at Nirvana's first gig, breaking from the Melvins-esque sludge dirges of the bands' early repertoire to faux-reluctantly jam his way through Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker," a song ideologically and musically opposed to the punk rock that bar mitzvahed an adolescent Cobain. Here he is, covering Leadbelly, the Vaselines, the Wipers, "Seasons in the Sun," making a sense of all those contradictions and conflicts, if only momentarily, in this noise birthed in the sludgy nowheresville of Aberdeen, WA, but bound for Heavy Rotation and multi-Platinum legend.
The journey toward (and ultimate complicated revulsion from) this synthesis of rock and its pop narcotic is documented by With the Lights Out with the skill of a biographer, and it expertly makes its case in the selection and order of its evidence. So nascent slivers of "Polly" and "About a Girl" peek out amid the inchoate riffage; so intimate acoustic demos of "Lithium" and "Sliver," the tape cogs whirring audibly in the background, highlight Cobain's faultless, natural gift for strychnine melody and deceptively subtle structure; so "Rape Me" finds Cobain lashing out at the arms embracing him, hiding his most spiteful lyrics in one of his sweetest melodies; so "Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow through the Strip," the hidden track on In Utero and so Cobain's final album statement in his lifetime, traces a disturbing path of destruction with none of the humor or levity of Nevermind's secret song, "Endless/Nameless." Within these conflicts, these contradictions, we find Cobain: vulnerable, raw, gifted, and very much doomed.
With the Lights Out's ultimate success lies in the breadth of unheard Nirvana music it presents, a compelling, intriguing, and very real portrait. Making an honest, turbulent sense of a literally angst-ridden artist while restoring the dignity diminished by those woeful Journals, it really does offer fans a closer knowledge of their hero and his music, and this is thanks to its refusal to airbrush out the conflicts, the loose ends, the cognitive dissonance. With the Lights Out is every bit as frustrating, impassioned, intelligent, futile, contradictory, and heroic as Cobain himself, and this very honesty is its brave, genius stroke.