It is often said that the bands that blaze the briefest (Velvet Underground 1966-1970, the Stooges 1968-1971, the Sex Pistols 1976-1977) burn the brightest, and that is certainly true of Nirvana. Just over two years separated the release of their breakthrough Nevermind album, in fall 1991, from the death of singer-songwriter Kurt Cobain in April 1994; just three studio albums and a few handfuls of demos, outtakes and live recordings exist to catalog their lifespan.
Yet it is safe to say that, without Kurt Cobain, Kris Novoselic and Dave Grohl, very little of what we take for granted in today’s music scene, or that of the past two decades, would have ever been dreamed of, so utterly did they reinvent the triple notions of punk, rock and superstardom. And the sadness that we cannot help but feel about their tragically early demise is not simply remedied, it is almost eliminated by the sheer joy that we experience when listening to them.
Some bands were lucky to make it big. Nirvana reversed that principle. It was the listeners who were the lucky ones.
In Chronological Order
The best-selling Sub Pop album ever pulled the entire label up along with it in the crazy months after Nirvana's follow-up Nevermind transformed the rock landscape. Bleach isn't the monument that Nevermind was (the album was famously recorded for less than the cost of a decent guitar, and it kind of shows), but it's a fascinating document of what Kurt Cobain wanted to be and what he couldn't help being — a... scuzzy punk noisenik with a pop jones he couldn't hide. There's a lot of thud and bluster here — "Paper Cuts" is all dissonant irritation — alongside some terrific, mammoth Led Zep/Aerosmith riffs, like the one that powers "School." "About a Girl" was supposedly inspired by the Beatles, which was not the world's most uncommon reference point unless you happened to have been a shaggy-haired Flipper fan in 1989; even better is Nirvana's first single, "Love Buzz," a cover of an obscurity by the '60s Dutch pop band Shocking Blue. Cobain growls it like a threat, but he knew it was a promise. — Douglas Wolkmore »
Stunned by the success of Nevermind and desperate for somethingâ€¦anythingâ€¦with which to break the wait for its follow-up, Geffen delved into the band's archive to craft an album's worth of rarities, oddities and historical artifacts — peppered with just enough of everything to ensure the widest appeal. And so we slide from five songs dating from the band's first ever recording session, in 1988 with future Melvin Dale Crover on drums; through... a clutch of the band's already hard-to-find early singles and EPs, and onto out-takes from both the Bleach and Nevermind recording sessions. Taken as a whole, the result was as uneven as that breakdown suggests, but the lack of cohesion is, in many ways, Incesticide's strongest point. This is Nirvana in camera, a verite document not only of their development, but also of the precision with which Cobain honed his pen, while his bandmates sharpened their musicianship; alternate versions of "Been A Son" and "Aneurysm" are gripping; covers that cross from the Vaselines to Devo offer snapshots of the band's own influences; and their contributions to such Northwestern indie comps as Teriyaki Asthma and Kill Rock Stars are a reminder of a time when the only people who cared about Nirvana were probably Nirvana themselves. Yet through it all, hindsight seizes upon those unseen moments when everything comes together, up to three years before Nevermind opened those floodgates. And while further unreleased material would soon follow it from the vault, Incesticide remains the best of the rest.more »
Interviewed around the release of In Utero, Kurt Cobain spoke wistfully of his desire to showcase his songs in an acoustic setting — yet, when he tried it for the first time, at a show at Roseland in New York City that summer, the audience turned away in dismay. Some even booed. Nine months later, Cobain was dead, his last gift to the world the MTV Unplugged performance that... was aired in December 1993, and released on CD a year later. And it is impossible to view, or hear, it without imagining the inner anguish that Cobain was already enduring, and without adding in an emotional subtext that may or may not have been present in the first place. At the time, he simply looked proud to have achieved an ambition; in hindsight, he felt haunted. Stripped back but not turned down, Nirvana acoustic lose none of the power that hallmarked their electric counterpart; if anything, the songs are even more powerful, the weight of the lyrics even more intense. Unplugged won a sentimental Grammy and topped charts around the world, an indication of the depth of emotion that followed Cobain's death. But unlike so many other posthumous releases, Unplugged truly offers a glimpse into the musical soul, whether it is demonstrating how readily even the most raucous song could be realigned, or tipping a hat to a favorite act. The Meat Puppets, the Vaselines and Lead Belly all receive tribute from Nirvana, but the greatest honor was probably paid to David Bowie, whose "Man Who Sold The World" was so skillfully adapted that Bowie himself later admitted that he sometimes felt as though he was now performing a Nirvana cover.more »
Echoing Incesticide's brief of drawing the very best from the band's archive, From The Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (the river closest to the band's ancestral home of Aberdeen, Washington) spans Nirvana's entire career; the earliest cuts, "Polly" and "Breed," date from a London club show in 1989, the latest from the Seattle Arena in 1994. And in between times, Nirvana rage and rampage through what could almost be called a dry... run for the Nirvana hits compilation, dropping in on almost every significant song they recorded, and allowing it to pursue its own musical instincts to their limits. This is not an album to dissect or analyze, beyond pointing out that it was in concert that even Nirvana's lesser songs took on fresh life and energy of their own. It is loud — tumultuously so at times; and it is savage, a fiery breath that casts even the most familiar numbers ("Teen Spirit," "Lithium," "Negative Creep," etc.) in a new light. Dynamics that the studio suppressed dance across each performance; notions that it couldn't have reproduced are given the room they always deserved. And while the piecemeal nature of the disc does detract from the purity of a single, complete performance, the alternative is actually even better.more »
A single disc compilation released at Courtney Love's insistence, as a suitable showcase for the previously unreleased "You Know You're Right" (a "potential 'hit' of extraordinary artistic and commercial value," she said), Nirvana served up 16 songs, drawn in the main from Nevermind, In Utero and Unplugged, but bolstered by a track apiece from Bleach, Incesticide and the Blew EP. As such, it is very much a beginner's guide to the band,... heavy on the hits and offering only a passing glance at the rougher extremes of the Nirvana catalog. But it never pretended to be anything else and nobody could conceive a better introduction to the group than this.more »