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REVIEW: Kurt Cobain – ‘Montage Of Heck: The Home Recordings’ (Universal / The End of Music)

Front cover of 'Montage Of Heck: The Home Recordings'

Front cover of ‘Montage Of Heck: The Home Recordings’

by Ed Biggs

Please, please, please can we let Kurt Cobain rest in peace now? Surely, everything that could possibly be seen, heard, bought and pored over has been exhumed, so can we now get back to admiring a fine body of work without adding increasingly watered-down material to it? Okay? Brett Morgen’s documentary movie Montage Of Heck, released in April, was an unqualified success and one that really should have drawn a line, once and for all, under the unseemly Nirvana barrel-scraping that has gone on for the last two decades. We’ve already had the exhaustive With The Lights Out box set in 2004; then the breathtakingly cynical edited Christmas cash-in Sliver: The Best Of The Box a year later; plus the ghoulish 2002 book ‘Journals’, full of Cobain’s writings and drawings. This ‘soundtrack’ album, no matter what artistic justifications are put forward, runs entirely contrary to the spirit of the movie, signalling the resumption of the archive excavation.

It also begs the question – will there ever be any end to this? Montage Of Heck, we thought, was chapter and verse stuff, at times uncomfortably bordering on voyeuristic but intimately revealing and satisfying as a portrait of one of the most significant pop songwriters of the last 50 years, was surely enough. The Home Recordings, though, with its regular and deluxe editions on download, CD and vinyl, released just in time for Christmas, is not only deeply cynical but artistically redundant. Divorced from the images of the movie, 95% of the material loses any significance it might have had on screen.

If you hadn’t seen Montage Of Heck and witnessed the beautiful poise of the movie itself, you might be forgiven for surmising that Morgen had gotten too close to his subject in putting this soundtrack together. This seems unlikely, as Morgen’s interviews leading up to its release were intelligent and maintained the correct distance. However, it does appear that he’s at least guilty of imbuing some of the music he stumbled across with far more artistic significance than is actually there. Ahead of its release, he said that The Home Recordings would offer “a rare, unfiltered glimpse into Cobain’s creative progression”, but it’s genuinely hard to hear.

For example, what can we possibly glean from ‘The Yodel Song’, which is nothing more than a thumbnail sketch of a track with Cobain aimlessly caterwauling. ‘Burn The Rain’, which sounds interesting, is interrupted by a phone call and doesn’t resume. One third of the deluxe version of the album isn’t even musical, consisting of cut-up collages of spoken word, and another third can be accounted for through obvious doodles of no lasting significance. Tracy Marander, Cobain’s former girlfriend, said in the movie that he would watch TV for hours and play his guitar aimlessly while doing so, and some of these obviously bored pissabouts like ‘Rehash’ and ‘The Happy Guitar’ sound precisely like you think those would. Hearing some famous Nirvana tracks, like ‘Scoff’, ‘Been A Son’ and ‘Frances Farmer’ in embryonic form, is intriguing for one listen only, as you can hear the flicker of inspiration in Cobain’s head.

It’s the musical equivalent of being able to watch Da Vinci at work, only to discover that he scratches his arse with his paintbrush. Being able to look behind the curtain at the creative process like this is very rarely rewarding. All this being said, there are a couple of enlightening moments sticking out like islets in the raging sea of pointlessness. The one-take cover of The Beatles’ ‘And I Love Her’ is striking, as is ‘She Only Lies’, which speaks to one of the many contradictions in Cobain’s personality – the public feminist with a streak of misogyny that occasionally showed itself beneath the skin of a song. ‘Do Re Mi – Medley’, the closing track on the deluxe edition, lasts 10 minutes but is innately melodic in the way that his songwriting circa Nevermind was. Possibly the most revealing moment is the monologue of ‘Aberdeen’, taken from the movie itself, where Cobain talks about the isolation he felt as a teenager and how those impulses first inspired his outlook on life, which he then channelled into the music. That this should be the case speaks volumes about the rest of the album.

The Home Recordings fails the one crucial question that needs to be asked: given the excessive archive plundering in the past, is this a worthwhile exercise? Beyond a couple of genuinely moving moments of fleeting beauty, the answer is: absolutely not. It tells us nothing that the movie hasn’t already communicated much more effectively, and positively stinks of coining it in – ironically, one of the accelerating tendencies of Nirvana’s career that Cobain felt so helplessly unable to resist. Only the most rabid Nirvana completist could possibly want to own it, and even then, they’d be hard pushed not to feel a bit dirty after having listened to it. (3/10)

Listen to Montage Of Heck: The Home Recordings here, and tell us what you think!

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