Review: Kurt Cobain – Montage Of Heck: The Home Recordings

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Ignore the naysayers, this is an artefact of interest to anyone still coming to grips with the brilliance of Nirvana. Kurt Cobain is dead, but his truth is a-rockin' on.

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Nirvana purists have penetrated the ranks of International Journalism™, and the release of this package, 21 years after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, proves it. The critics have been quick to condemn The Home Recordings as haram, a morbid, exploitative barrel-scrape that serves nothing but to pillage Cobain’s creative legacy; even the most sober of analysts have been moved to outright distress, with none other than Rolling Stone proposing a code of ethics with regard to the work of deceased entertainers in response.

The casual observer might wonder where these voices of righteous indignation were in 1998, when shock doc Kurt & Courtney implicated Courtney Love in the frontman’s death; or this summer, when Courtney’s tits enjoyed prominent screentime in this album’s companion piece, Montage of Heck; or, indeed, any year since the release of Nevermind, what with the unabated deluge of Nirvana t-shirts and posters and lunchboxes, turned out of Nicaraguan sweatshops to service the daily whims of angsty Millennial ignoramuses who do not – and will never – give a shit about the band.

The manufactroversy does, however, elicit an intriguing question: at what point does revisitation and commemoration become abuse? Would the display of Dali’s notebooks elicit a reaction as pronounced as the one this record has faced? Is the excitement that surrounds the disinterment and exhibition of a lost Renoir or Picasso fundamentally misguided? In fact, the cynics’ scope is rather limited on this occasion – nobody’s complaining about the two posthumous Michael Jackson albums, both of which are composed of material as smugly obscure as (if substantially more refined than) the tracks on offer here.

This isn’t, contrary to the billing of the marketing monkeys, a Kurt Cobain solo album, and the ramshackle quality of the content would disqualify it from even a bonus supplement under normal circumstances. Yet the glossy presentation deprives it of the inimitability one would associate with a collector curio. The Home Recordings is, rather, the most rawly authentic testament to Cobain’s musical genius yet committed to the public domain. And there’s not a single rendition of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in sight, which, at this stage, is probably for the better.

The scratchiness of these tracks, compiled from over 200 hours of cassette recordings, imbues the subject with a ghostliness that doesn’t really come across in the studio albums, some of the most durable rock items on the market – even those who relished the lo-fi nastiness of In Utero are bound to be unnerved by the sound of Kurt’s choral murmuring from beyond the grave in a static-tortured demo of ‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle’. His unique craftsmanship, and, in particular, his ear for pop aesthetics is in evidence throughout – he conjures a melody on-the-spot midway through ‘Do Re Mi’, whilst ‘And I Love Her’ is as poignant and troubling as a Paul McCartney cover could ever be. The inclusion of an early demo of ‘Been A Son’, that most overdone of Nirvana classics, is revelatory – contrast with the polished acoustic version off the With The Lights Out boxset for maximum effect.

Cobain’s Burroughsian sense of humour figures here in spades, mostly in the form of in-jokes and audio monstrosities too warped and personal (‘Montage of Kurt’, ‘Scream’) to appeal to anyone beyond the one-man target audience. Other sections are simply unlistenable – the perversity of the ‘Aberdeen’ monologue, unforgettably animated in the Montage of Heck documentary, needs to be heard to be believed. But those scattered gems among the compilation fully justify the price-tag.

Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings is out now via Universal.

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Desperado, social scientist, pop culture aficionado and occasional dabbler in journalism.

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