The Drowned Baby

A three-CD-plus-DVD set added to the canon: pretty fancy for a band that only made three albums. Or maybe two, since Bleach doesn’t really count. Two? One big one. Actually, their reputation is balanced on one song. (That would be “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle,” of course, here in the alternate universe.) If you’re expecting “this changes everything” lost songs, or versions that oh my God you have to hear they’re even better—well, as the drowned baby at Kim’s Underground used to say, don’t hold your breath. So, in theory, this big Christmas stocking of demos, B sides, compilation tracks, and curiosities is mostly useful for its historical value, as context.

The context, it turns out, rules. Behind the steely contours of Nevermind and In Utero were these halfway-there sketches, muddy jams, and salvageable failures, most of which are pretty exciting on their own terms. There’s a familiar myth that Nirvana represented the return of live raw rock ‘n’ roll to hit radio. It’s more accurate to say that their Cobain/Novoselic/Grohl studio incarnation was hyper-real: They were fussy perfectionists in the service of seeming live and raw. (Listen to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at the highest volume you can bear sometime, and pay attention to the drums. No drum kit in the world sounds like that.) With the Lights Out is more like the lucky punk mess they were reputed to be.

The chronology is slightly tweaked for the sake of dramatic arcs: from debut gig to “Polly” (included by law on every Nirvana record!); from the unknown “Opinion” to the inevitable “Teen Spirit”; from two versions of statement-of-intent “Rape Me” to ex post facto suicide note “All Apologies.” The first disc (roughly the Bleach era) establishes the two phantoms hovering behind the band. One is Led Zeppelin—the box opens with their first show’s “Heartbreaker,” and also includes “Moby Dick” (oof) and a 1988 “Immigrant Song” filmed in a basement with Kurt screaming at a wall. (He loved metal so much that an umlaut stuck to every vowel he sang for the rest of his life.) The other is Leadbelly: Kurt’s 1989 attempt to write songs with Mark Lanegan turned into four Huddie Ledbetter covers instead. But the jolt of the formative years is their ordinariness. You could easily mistake this heavy Pacific Northwest band for a lesser Nirvanabe.

Still, the “mature” stuff came early. “Dumb” and “Pennyroyal Tea” and Kurt singing “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” all predate Nevermind. It makes sense: This was an artist who from the moment of his breakthough (the best line he ever wrote, “I fell asleep and watched TV”) presented maturation in reverse—a little kid begging to go home, an underwater baby, a fetus in utero, nothing nirvana nonexistence. If he’d stuck with the original lyrics of “Teen Spirit” (from the DVD’s footage of the first time they played it in public—watch the crowd bug out in under 12 seconds), the sheet music would’ve started “come out and play” instead of “load up on guns.”

Nirvana’s last great song-making gift, the metalhead air drummer’s knack of thinking beat-first, bloomed when they gained the services of air-drummer’s drummer Dave Grohl. It explains a lot that “Scentless Apprentice,” whose demo here is nine minutes of kicking the door in, was then called “Chuck Chuck Fo Fuck.” Not all the late jams are as fruitful (three heinous ones stink up the middle of disc three), but almost all the original songs on the last two discs are on point rhythmically: The high-impact surf beat of “Sappy” and the Bic-flick feinting of “Oh, the Guilt” are Zep-grade hooks.

Near the end of Lights Out, Kurt introduces a song by the Vaselines: “They’re very punk rock.” So were Nirvana, and thinking that “punk rock” means exactly the same thing as “good” was their defining fallacy. But they made their complicated work sound so simple that, 13 years later, thousands of people still pick up guitars to try to do the same thing. Don’t hold your breath.

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