Before I dive into this much-criticised collection of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s personal cassette tapes, I would just like to make it perfectly clear to everyone where I stand on the issue of bringing forth a dead musician’s private recordings into the public light. My view here is simply that I don’t buy into the idea that Universal is being intrusive and disrespectful by releasing this material. Maybe I would feel differently if Cobain himself hadn’t left behind 200 hours of raw tape without legally making sure that no one would ever be allowed to touch his intimate jamming sessions. I’m sorry, but when you write off your entire estate to your daughter and wife, you are basically putting your work in their hands. If Kurt didn’t want to share this with the world, I’m sure he would’ve been sane enough to contractually slam a sticker on it that says “HANDS OFF, NEVER TO BE RELEASED!”. I think we can all agree that what we have here is a cash-grab compilation that shamelessly exploits the legacy of the grunge pioneer, but the thought that we should feel guilty for listening to it is something I don’t believe in. I mean, if you could hear Elvis Presley or John Lennon experimenting and creating music when they think no one is around, would you say no? I don’t think so. I’ll leave the part out of the equation as we go along.
Let me just get right down to the root. Montage of Heck is a hard pill to swallow. It’s not something you just sit down and casually indulge yourself in. Most of these songs are not even fully fledged demos. They don’t have any structure and are not meant for convincing anyone to pump money into clean-sounding studio recordings. This is one man sitting on his couch in his suburban living room, strumming a mostly unplugged guitar and sporadically creating sound collages, skits, and instrumental passages while the TV is buzzing quietly in the background. Occasionally the phone will also ring, and we hear a bit of the conversation. The point is, this is not as much of a coherent album as it is a loosely assembled package of unfiltered scraps and curious sonic experiments. It’s completely raw and hasn’t been tampered with; a fan experience first and foremost.
It requires a lot of patience to appreciate any of these disjointed chunks, but if you possess that kind of virtue, I think there’s a good chance you might enjoy this compilation as much as I did. The enjoyment, however, is not really of the traditional kind, since this isn’t a matter of whether or not it’s actually good. Either you’ll find it interesting, or you’ll be compelled to turn it off as soon as Cobain starts yodelling on the album opener “The Yodel Song”. You simply get it or you don’t. I suspect a lot of people will dismiss and reject The Home Recordings, perhaps even refuse to listen at all. I won’t say I don’t understand that sentiment, because I do. I can only speak for myself here, and what I took away from it was a deep sense of respect and admiration for the generation X spokesman. Like the documentary of the same name, it doesn’t judge or glorify him. It allows his art to speak on his behalf, which is the only right way to do it. It shows him for who he truly was.
The thing that immediately struck me was how content and comfortable Kurt seemed to be when he was by himself. Part of the myth surrounding Cobain has always been that he was a depressive young man and a sad human being, which most of us know couldn’t be further from the truth. Montage of Heck does a wonderful job of highlighting all shades of his persona, especially his distinctive flair for playful creation and unconventional songwriting. While clawing my way through the record, I felt a sense of strong blissfulness. This guy is so happy within the confines of his own space. No expectations, no label, no pressure. A little thing called artistic freedom.
Kurt doesn’t limit himself to any particular genre or style. He just turns on the recorder and starts playing whatever comes to mind, until eventually a classic Nirvana riff starts to form organically. That sound is so inherently his, and when you go trough these tapes you’ll figure out why. One moment we are greeted by surprisingly delightful 1970’s acoustic sunshine tunes (“The Happy Guitar”, “Letters to Frances”), the next we are blown backwards by a Black Sabbath-esque heavy-metal riff (“Rehash”) or a self-confessional recount of suicidal tendencies (“Aberdeen”). You have tracks like 1988 Capitol Lake Jam Commercial and Sea Monkeys, on which Cobain plays different narrative roles and characters, churning out nonsense about Paula Abdul being a sea monkey, going to see his own band live as a different person, and making us all aware that the tooth fairy is actually our mom. It’s very freakish and trippy, but also somehow fascinating and even hilarious from time to time. We can only wonder what was going through his mind when he spun those segments, but I suppose that’s the real fun of it. I don’t think it necessarily meant anything to him way back then, but it does reveal some rather insightful things about him. Most importantly that he wasn’t always the tragic figure we make him out to be. He was actually pretty funny and charming!
But while I greatly admire what Brett Morgan has tried to do here, I have one glaring issue with the way he chose what to include and what not to include in this batch. The standard edition only contains a small fraction of the really good stuff, and quite frankly feels a bit too much like a marketing trick put forward to tempt you to buy the deluxe edition, which despite its many highlights has an almost equally appalling amount of pointless trash on it. Like Cobain screaming horrendously for 30 seconds straight (“Scream”), raping the reverb effect for nearly 3 minutes (“Reverb Experiment”), and making excruciating blipping noises for no apparent reason (“Kurt Ambiance”) . Seriously? You had over 200 HOURS worth of tape, and the best you could find was Kurt whining about beans while mutilating his guitar? It baffles me how much crap they could’ve cut away, yet for some reason they didn’t. I mean, what are we supposed to learn about this man by listening to him scream? We all know he could do that, now we have the shitty home version.
If you want to bank on man’s success and legacy, at least be respectful enough to not bring out the worst garbage you can find. There is a ton of compelling material on here, but approximately 30-35 % of the stuff is literally dog shit. Some of you might be asking yourself, should I invest in the standard or deluxe edition? Well, first of all I encourage you to not even buy it, mainly because Cobain’s family already have more money than they will ever be able to spend in their life. There should’ve been a pay-what-you-want option for this, because anything else would be unreasonable. That’s the way I see it, at least. Secondly, I would recommend getting the deluxe edition just so you can re-assemble it in a way that makes sense to you. Fortunately the high-points far outweigh the low-points here in terms of sheer quality. As long as you avoid the stinkers, you should be in for a rather special treat. Here is how I would’ve organised the album:
2. The Yodel Song
3. What More Can I say
4. 1988 Capitol Lake Jam
5. The Happy Guitar
6. Montage of Kurt
7. Burn The Rain
8. Clean Up Before She Comes Home (Demo)
9. Montage of Kurt II
10. Bright Smile
14. And I Love Her
15. Sea Monkeys
16. Letters to Frances.
17. Frances Farm Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle (Demo)
18. She Only Lies
19. Rhesus Monkey
20. Do Re Mi -Medley