Letters From Somnolescent

End it Someday: Looking Back on With the Lights Out
November 23, 2019

It’s been 25 years, 7 months, and 19 days since the death of Kurt Cobain. You might remember him as the singer and guitarist for Nirvana, who later ended up trying pellet-flavored Pez in his greenhouse. He’s pretty much been canonized as the last great rockstar, and eh—I don’t care. I love Nirvana, but I don’t care.

With the Lights Out

It’s also been 15 years since the release of a little three-CD-one-DVD Nirvana treasure trove of B-sides, live tapes, and rehearsals came into the world. With the Lights Out was the first official look into the home demos and leftovers that went into producing Nirvana’s three proper records. It’s a fascinating little document with a lot of history—and a lot of flaws.

Join me as I ramble about my history with the boxset, its highs, its lows, and where I think it sits in the Greater Nirvana Canon as a Sacred Text or something.

“Heartbreaker! Heartbreaker!”

My love for Nirvana started not with Nevermind or In Utero or even Bleach, but with the little grasping-at-all-the-dollars spinoff CD to With the Lights Out, Sliver: The Best of the Box. I don’t remember where I really first heard Nirvana: could’ve been Guitar Hero, could’ve been elsewhere. I was seven years old, and my stepmom, whose CD collection was where my music tastes usually incubated, had only a copy of the latter CD. (I believe her copy of Nevermind got stolen.) In addition to asking for all their actual albums for Christmas, I began to dig through Sliver and hear, well, a bunch of messy rehearsals. Odd introduction to the band, I know.

I’ll come back to Sliver later in the post, but suffice to say, tiny Cammy found it both irritating and tantalizing. I think I was too green to really appreciate it at its messiest, but other tracks got me wanting more: “Clean Up Before She Comes” proved the grungeman had an ear for harmony, the static-damaged “Lithium” was yet still a highlight, and “Blandest” was just raw as fuck. I had to hear more.

It wasn’t long before I had the full boxset in my hands, and tiny Cammy listened through every CD religiously. Fuck being an angsty teen, I was an angsty little kid, sitting and stewing over the murky “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” or the warmth of their cover of “Here She Comes Now” or the flatly miserable “Verse Chorus Verse” in equal measure. Something about it interested me more than their proper, realized albums, and all these years later, even as the shiny plated cover on mine’s been scratched to hell, I still hang onto it with a certain fondness.

A still from the "In Bloom" demo video

That’s why I felt inclined to look back at it in this much detail. It’s an oddly major part of my past. Even when I owned their proper albums, With the Lights Out was still the lens through which I saw them. It set me up for a lifetime of sifting through demos and seeking out rough mixes and comparing intricacies between versions of the same track. Even after streaming was a thing, I was still pouring over CDs and liner notes and fansites, and With the Lights Out represents the genesis of that obsession.

It’s by no means complete, by no means totally accurate, and in some cases, a glaring missed opportunity, but it’s the warts that make it worth discussion. Let’s go through each of the CDs individually—if you don’t know what I’m talking about, click through for a YouTube copy. If you don’t know Nirvana at all, I can’t help you.

Disc One: 1987-1989

Disc one's label

For all its faults, one cannot say With the Lights Out doesn’t properly establish Nirvana’s origins. Their first live show and radio session are both present in fairly good quality at the start of the disc and show about as embryonic a Nirvana as you can get. They played a lot of covers, as garage bands tend to do: for all his protesting, Kurt manages to rip through “Heartbreaker” fairly accurately, and I guess if you’re gonna cover an obscure 60s band that isn’t Shocking Blue, Thunder and Roses will work.

Of course, if you actually try to listen to it straight through, you quickly realize that it’s not exactly top-shelf material, at least not for several songs in. The first spark of genius occurs on the track that got the dubious moniker of “Mrs. Butterworth” (I’ll get back to that): Nirvana wasn’t known for their shredding, but this one shows their metal tendencies as alive as ever, and with one of the catchiest choruses Kurt would ever discard to boot. By nature, though, this is the spottiest of the three discs. Light on Nirvana classics and heavy on half-written originals and weak live performances, the first disc is a tough sell to people who aren’t me.

Making matters worse is the lack of research that hits this first disc especially hard. Three out of the first five tracks are mislabeled, with two being outright fabricated names. It doesn’t get much better past that point: “Seed” is inexplicably “Don’t Want it All”, “Erectum” appears as “Raunchola”, and as said, “Mrs. Butterworth” is a plain ol’ fake name for a song that didn’t have one. (Dates and performers are wrong across a lot of the set, but I’ll get on with it.)

I get that names get lost sometimes, but this was presented as a historical document, essentially, work tapes from a band prone to recording many of them. That’s really where a lack of research hurts the set: people in Nirvana’s camp caught this shit not long after its release, making the frankly bootleg-quality mislabels seem like a lack of care was put into it. (The brickwalled mastering of the entire set is even more eyebrow-raising. You know, brickwalling demos off tapes that, in some cases, needed to be baked to be playable again.)

Kurt singing into a wall

The other thing that becomes apparent throughout the first disc is that Kurt had…a few bad ideas occasionally. The story goes that “Beans” was slated for release on Bleach, but Kurt’s hand was promptly slapped by Sub Pop’s Jonathan Poneman, who thought it was fucking retarded. We might’ve gotten “Big Cheese” out of the ordeal, but in this case, the big cheese had a point: it is, in fact, fucking retarded.

In that sense, With the Lights Out is actually pretty humanizing: if this is supposed to be a look into the mind of a young Kurt Cobain, it’s a look into a lot of half-baked sketches and dicking around that would’ve tanked Bleach had Kurt gotten his way. Simply put: this brilliant songwriter? Wrote the lines “Japhy had some beans, he was happy, happy, happy that he ate some beans”, pitch-shifted his voice to an aggravating squeak, and wanted to put it on wax. Your dumb ideas are probably no more embarrassing than his.

About the halfway point in the disc is where the dumb experiments and covers teeter off and some of Kurt’s best work starts to creep in: for acoustic tracks, “Clean Up Before She Comes” is the best use of a 4-track I think I’ve ever heard (and some of Kurt’s best harmonies for sure), and “Seed” is plenty moody (if a little aimless). As far as band demos go, the early “Dive” with Jason Everman on second guitar is an especially bright point, with a totally different, almost live vibe from the watery rattle of the later Smart version. The Blew session tracks (especially “Token Eastern Song”) and the three tracks from the Jury sessions, where members of Nirvana and Screaming Trees covered Lead Belly tracks, are also highlights.

I probably would’ve traded most of the 1987 material for cuts from the Fecal Matter tape and one of the two “Polly”s for their cover of Kiss’ “Do You Love Me?” just for completion sake, but the first disc shows exactly what Nirvana was in the beginning, for better or for worse: hopped up on classic rock, without a permanent drummer or Black Francis’ patented dynamics in tow, and finding ways to indulge their weirdness that didn’t involve a fucking pitch-shifter.

Disc Two: 1990-1992

Disc two's label

Disc two is where the classics start showing up. It’s probably the most listenable CD of the entire set, featuring the 1990 KAOS acoustic radio set (partially, I’ll come back to that), cuts from the excellent Smart sessions, outtakes from Nevermind‘s recording, and a smattering of relatively essential B-sides towards the end. Kurt’s solo stuff is kept to the front of the disc, and most of it hits…mostly because it’s a lot of softballs, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The most illuminating stretch of the disc are the demos and outtakes leading up to Nevermind. While “Old Age” isn’t the March 1991 barn demo The Stranger leaked ages before the boxset dropped, it’s a better listen, scratch vocal notwithstanding. “Verse Chorus Verse” might not have been Kurt’s most memorable tune, but I’ve always enjoyed the way Kurt mumbles through lines like “You’re the reason I feel pain” as blunt as he never seemed to. And of course, the early barn demo of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is as excellent as work tape selections get: it might be distorted beyond belief and fuzzy about the fine details, but goddamn if it isn’t an incredibly energetic, fun to listen to take of what would later become Nirvana’s signature song. This is what this boxset was meant for.

When this disc gets good, it gets positively essential. The home demo of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, with the tape recorder’s mechanism almost as prominent as Kurt’s guitar and voice, could pass as a recording from a bygone era of 78s and primitive recording equipment. “Pay to Play” goes much, much harder than “Stay Away” ever did. The full-band “Retards” demo of “Drain You”, while still a little undercooked, is a catchier, poppier counterpoint to the song that’d appear on Nevermind and a great listen overall. For B-sides, “Oh, the Guilt” remains underappreciated, “Curmudgeon” is fucking insane to listen to, and “D-7” renders the Wipers original obsolete.

Paramount Theater, Halloween 1991 (this show has the best atmosphere)

Issue is: a lot of this was previously released. “Pay to Play” showed up on DGC Rarities with a better master. “Aneurysm” and “Curmudgeon” were B-sides. “Return of the Rat” and “Here She Comes Now” are more compilation fodder. “Oh, the Guilt” is an alternate, largely flattened mix of an earlier split single with The Jesus Lizard. “D-7” reminds you Hormoaning never got a proper CD reissue.

Re-releasing harder-to-find B-sides is no problem: Hell, I quite enjoy that. For all the shit you can give Capitol, the “Collector’s Editions” of Pablo Honey, The Bends, and OK Computer remain genuinely solid purchases if you can find them. The former alone features the entirety of Radiohead’s forever out-of-print debut EP Drill, CD copies of which regularly go for about five times the entirety of the Collector’s Edition itself goes for. (And unlike With the Lights Out, no remaster garbage there.) It’s not reissuing that’s the issue, it’s that there’s so many better, properly unreleased recordings to fill the space with.

The benefit of hindsight and later leaks let us see exactly what Geffen didn’t include. A version of “Dumb” from the KAOS session surfaced in excellent quality in 2016, which would’ve far outdone the staid, frankly unnecessary BBC session take featured here. The Sound City version of “Sappy” was the white whale of the Nirvana tape traders for a long time before it too fell to the Montage of Heck leaker at large, but it could’ve appeared on this disc. Out of everything from the 1991 Music Source session, why “Aneurysm”? Why not the scratch take of “On a Plain”? Or the early “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”? If we’re talking BBC sessions, no electric “Something in the Way”?

It might seem like I’m splitting hairs, given that all this surfaced later on, but this disc was a golden opportunity to show what went into Nirvana’s golden age behind the curtain. Dedicated fans can easily track down the “Oh, the Guilt” split and Singles boxset for this stuff. Yes, you’re getting them in one spot, and certainly, some of the covers from the compilations have their place the same way “Heartbreaker” and “White Lace and Strange” had their place at the start of disc one. When it comes to unreleased material, though, there’s just not enough of it here.

That’s not counting the other missteps. The BBC “version” of “Endless, Nameless” is another indefensible pick where actual music could have gone. The brickwalling. None of the three KAOS tracks are in the best quality, and it’s by no means the full set. “Opinion” has a dropout that was amusingly and very noticeably plugged with a bit from the circulating bootleg copy, “Lithium” pops…inexplicably, as if this was a needle drop and not a tape transfer, and “Been a Son” is incomplete. Forgivable enough if these are the best possible sources, but I find it hard to believe the frankly YouTube-quality lossy source for “Drain You” was among them. This is shit Russian bootleggers do, not major record labels—or so I thought, because here we are with a warbly, messy copy of an otherwise great early take of a great song. Maddening.

But at the end of the day, the disc we got is the disc we got, and what we got is still worth a listen. It’s just incredibly safe and kind of a missed opportunity. As I said, when the disc is essential, it makes up for everything. Even the previously-released stuff is still really rather good (“Oh, the Guilt” is an eternal favorite of mine, as is “Curmudgeon”)—I only question if it was necessary to pad the disc to the back teeth with it.

Disc Three: 1993-1994

Disc three's label

As the high-minded Nirvana auteur would no doubt agree that In Utero is the group’s most visceral and satisfying listen, disc three of With the Lights Out is probably the objective best of the three. It’s not as formless as disc one, nor does it have the padding of disc two. It’s the sound of a band whose walls were closing in as their reach expanded, and no matter what nightmare Kurt had in store to shake off all those who knew not what he meant, he was still gonna write killer tracks to the bitter end.

One of the strongest cuts here also happens to be the longest: you wouldn’t expect a ten minute jam on “Scentless Apprentice” to go over as well as it does, but thankfully, with the most buoyant groove on In Utero, it’s a hit. The way the track goes from being a simple riff and drumbeat and builds as the band works it out part-by-part feels like you’re listening to a classic come together right in front of you. It’s hard to imagine that Kurt basically slagged off the Dave-penned riff at the start; as far as been there, grunged that goes, it’s got a bounce few could match.

The January 1993 Rio demos are an even better addition. Much ado has been made about In Utero sounding very funeral-esque by the end, but honestly, it’s more akin to a bear actually caught in a bear trap, in pain and homicidally so. “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Milk It” really bear (hehe) that out, the former still obviously being the tragic single even without the lyrics about orchids and nooses and the latter still sounding like a fucking beatdown. Following that is an early “I Hate Myself and Want to Die” that, minute-and-a-half long noise intro aside, bodies the re-recording depending on the day like “Dive” on the first disc. Oh, and “Moist Vagina”. Listen, it might not be finished, but fuck if it’s not funny. With me now: “She has a moist vagina.”

Right as the Rio sessions start to outstay their welcome with two different improv jams (one already familiar with those Nirvana fans across the pond and one that frankly isn’t very good), we get into the home demos once more. “Serve the Servants” haunts, “Very Ape” jaunts. Top notch. The two notable Pachyderm outtakes both appear here, Dave’s “Marigold” and No Alternative‘s lacerating take of “Sappy”, and they’re both rather welcome too. To top things off, I really never appreciated “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” until I revisited the boxset. This one’s pretty much the same as the Unplugged version, but gosh, it’s pretty. And sad! But still pretty. Are those horns or accordions, I wonder?

A small-known fact about Kurt was that he was actually a better drummer than Dave

Of course, it’s not a perfect disc (but what is?). The two versions of “Rape Me” featured at the front of the disc pull a lesser conundrum of the package into focus: the band demo is easily the better listen, but the acoustic demo is more revealing. The acoustic demo shows the way Kurt would play with words and arrangements, but even at three minutes, it still somehow feels overly long: the bridge isn’t there, and the chorus barely registers as different from the verse. (Perhaps this is why Kurt was unconfident of the group’s abilities outside of Pixies dynamics.) Meanwhile, the 1992 band demo is virtually identical to the later In Utero version, save for a crying baby, a half-hearted tambourine, and some bridge harmonies, but it’s the one I’d actually listen to. Including both was probably unnecessary, but as for which I’d pick, I can’t say.

I also question the disc’s ordering. Putting the acoustic “All Apologies” at the end of the disc, while maybe a nod to In Utero itself, is as weak a finish as the acoustic “Rape Me” was a start. You have a beautiful burnout with “Sappy” and then a solemn goodbye with “Sunbeam”, and neither of those are your closers? You’ll end with a stiff “All Apologies” that’s mostly the same arrangement as the album one anyway? “Pennyroyal Tea” falters for the same reason. Kurt already did this one solo on Unplugged, so if you’re gonna include it, at least use the 1990 one that didn’t sound exactly like it.

Aside from the earlier mentioned acoustic demos, the only other that makes for a good listen is the fabled “Do Re Mi”. One of the holy grails of Nirvana collecting, one that was sought-after all throughout the Nirvana tape trading boom of the late 90s, this take’s as good as Kurt’s bedroom strumming really got. That’s to say, really good. Fans continue to salivate over what Kurt would do with it on a fourth Nirvana record, but personally, I’m satisfied. I mean, can you imagine this with a full band? (Aside from the weird fan mockups.) Kinda ruins the beauty of it (as does the mono transfer and brickwalling, but I shouldn’t complain). Maybe Kurt should’ve gone solo after all.

I’m not one for the celebrity worship thing, as I hinted at at the start. Kurt was a talented guy with a weird fascination for medical imagery and kind of a beta complex. He had demons, as do we all. Baggage does not endear me to you, talent endears me to you. Yet, there was a palpable sense of loss as I got to “Sunbeam”, another reason I wished it was the closer. You can hear in his voice that he saw something of himself in a line like “Sunbeams are not made like me”. Kurt was as much a fan as those that idolize him. It’s a weirdly relatable moment for me that his own music can’t even come close to. Dude died not a rock hero, but an R.E.M. fanatic, after all.

For as much as I can nitpick, the third disc is great. The Rio sessions really show that Nirvana excelled at performing when they wanted to and that the batch of songs on their upcoming third album were gonna blow away anything Nevermind had towards the back end. There are, of course, omissions and oversights (would’ve been cool to get some of the “drunk in Rio” tracks Kurt and eternal fanbase punching bag Courtney Love did, given that we got those Jury tracks on the first disc), but I don’t wanna belabor the point. Disc three has one outright clunker and many, many winners. For an outtakes boxset, that’s fantastic.

Disc Four: DVD

The DVD's label

I haven’t talked about the DVD yet because I really haven’t paid it much mind all these years. In fact, I kinda doubt my DVD was played more than once or twice. Nevertheless, in preparing for this retrospective, I did my due diligence in digging through it, and for as little you hear about it, it might very well be the best part of the entire box. At least, it’s the most fun to experience.

Unlike the CDs, the DVD covers live renditions and dicking around from Nirvana’s entire career, starting from one of the earliest filmed rehearsals with Chad Channing up to the band’s kitschy instrument swap on “Seasons in the Sun”. The amount of firsts and significant footage included is pretty special. The first live outings of “Pennyroyal Tea” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” feature, Dave’s first show is included in part, the video for the excellent Smart demo of “In Bloom” is a treat, this set’s version of the hidden gem “Talk to Me” is a great addition, and there’s even another (more epic) take on “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” from their Paramount 1991 set. It’s really hard to complain about what you get. This is exactly what Nirvana was: goofballs trying to amuse themselves in the middle of nowhere in between shows.

Chad getting caught out in the middle of a very orange torrential downpour

For a viewing experience straight through, it’s not ideal, I’ll admit. The 1988 rehearsal wears out its welcome by about “Spank Thru”, and that’s only halfway through. As bugfuck as the band goes on their cover of Zep’s “Immigrant Song”, complete with Kurt switching out Robert Plant’s wail with a proper scream, them having a good time doesn’t exactly translate to songs you’ll wanna revisit. Honestly, though, that’s not the point: it’s Nirvana having fun, and goddamn if Kurt didn’t make me laugh a few times throughout. Nirvana’s oh so dour legacy covers up the amount of snark this man could conjure up. “We’d like to thank you all for coming tonight and letting us pretend like we’re still underground alternative rockstars.” Class act.

The DVD’s also home to the boxset’s lone easter eggs. A tracking version of “Lounge Act” with a scratch vocal appears as menu music if you know where to look, and Dave uses his cymbals to break icicles off the side of Pachyderm Studios elsewhere in the credits. I’m glad they were thinking of us explorers when they mastered the DVD, personally. It’s the kind of care you don’t see with much else on the package. Of course, even the DVD can’t escape a bit of oversight: “In Bloom” and “Sappy” are in the wrong order on the back of the box! A minor thing, sure, but did no one check this shit before it went to print? I say.

A surprising amount of the footage here isn’t listed anywhere on the packaging. If you just went off the back, you’d think it was all live, but the occasional footage of the band at rest (especially on the Bleach tour footage) help to break things up further. Even if all this amounts to a slight Live! Tonight! Sold Out!! retread, and even if the renditions aren’t the most incredible ones of each track, it’s probably the part of the set that’ll go over the best with people who aren’t as in tune with every inch of Nirvana’s history. I’d probably recommend the DVD of MTV Unplugged in New York or Live at the Paramount over the boxset for those people, but enough griping, it’s a great addition. And again—”Talk to Me”. In your own language, please.

A Quick Rant About Sliver: The Best of the Box

Sliver's disc label

I won’t spend a lot of time on Sliver because, despite it introducing me to With the Lights Out as a whole, it’s kind of useless. A single disc of “highlights” from a three-disc outtakes boxset. Without many of the highlights. Oh, it’s got the barn demo of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (and a kinda rubbish version of “Come As You Are” to go with it, but hold that thought), it’s got the Rio demo of “Heart-Shaped Box”, it’s got “Do Re Mi”—but where the hell is “Dive”? Where’s the “Drain You” demo? Where’s the “Scentless Apprentice” demo? “Best of the Box” my ass, more like “Most Marketable of the Box”.

I can’t see anyone needing this disc who isn’t already willing to spring for the full thing. Better yet, despite being a “mere” 22 tracks, there’s still filler! Again, I love “Oh, the Guilt”, but you can find copies of the original single for like $5 if you know where to look, maybe less. Including both versions of “Rape Me” was an even worse idea. For every selection Sliver gets right (“Ain’t It a Shame” is in fact the best track from the Jury sessions, yes), there’s one that didn’t need to be here (the live “Floyd the Barber” is rough), once again ending with the same tired acoustic “All Apologies” just to rub it in. It’s as unnecessary as it gets.

Ah ah ah, but that’s not why Sliver exists. Three tracks are exclusive to it—the Fecal Matter version of “Spank Thru”, a bizarre pre-Smart demo of “Sappy”, and the barn demo of “Come As You Are”. It’s that first one that sticks in my craw: the “Sappy”, though unreleased, is one of the least likeable renditions you’ll hear of it (befuddling both Jack Endino and Sub Pop when Kurt insisted on pursuing it singularly in a session), and this “Come As You Are” has neither the reveal nor the bounce of its sister version of “Teen Spirit” to warrant it being singled out over, say, the “Territorial Pissings” or “Something in the Way” from those sessions. But anything from the Fecal Matter tape? Well, now that’s suddenly worth a begrudging purchase.

Tricky them, that DGC.

Summation

A still from the first unveiling of "Teen Spirit"

Overall, it’s good. The good shit is very much worth the listen. Fuck, the Sound City and Rio tracks alone make a compelling case for why as punk goes, few could match Nirvana’s ferocity. Kurt’s home demos are a whole lot spottier, yet a “Clean Up Before She Comes” or a “Do Re Mi” is what makes a “Beans” or an especially flaccid “Sliver” worth sitting through, at least for me. The DVD is the brightest of the four discs: it best represents what Nirvana actually was to those who weren’t there (hi), and provided you skip around some, it’s probably the most fun part of the package.

Yet, With the Lights Out is dogged by a few undeniable problems across the set:

  1. For what’s supposed to be a historical document, they really winged it on some of the details and song names. Other errors (namely the DVD track ordering mixup on the back) show a lack of care.
  2. Rarely are songs represented by their most interesting rendition.
  3. There’s one too many B-sides and already released songs, especially on the second disc. (It’s more excusable for compilation appearances than B-sides; buying a whole Velvet Underground tribute is a tall ask for some fans, but buying the “Teen Spirit” single for “Aneurysm” less so.)
  4. Some of this is just fucking garbage, regardless of how you slice it.
  5. The brickwall mastering on a boxset of mostly unfinished material is kinda insulting.

At times, it seems like the boxset isn’t sure what it wants to be. Is it like Alice in Chains’ Music Bank, a career-spanning retrospective of tracks every fan should own? Is it here to prop up the graverobbing industry of Kurt Cobain like Journals was? Is it here to show Nirvana’s discography in nascent order, to reveal what really makes the song tick? In truth, it kinda fails at all of them, but it succeeds at all of them as well. That’s what makes it so curious.

As a career retrospective, the roughest cuts only tarnish the band’s image. By miracle or by Kurt’s better judgement, their three albums ended up pretty damn consistent. The boxset does little to add to them. As a look into Kurt’s eyes, I barely notice aside from when I’m hearing him fuck around unflatteringly, and as a rape of the vaults, it doesn’t tell you much the albums or Unplugged didn’t already. The set often sidesteps the most interesting early demos of each song, as if a casual Nirvana fan wouldn’t have been able to handle Kurt’s stranger songwriting tendencies and needed them tempered by two more years of A&R development. Yet, it’s all of those things just a little because of how skilled Nirvana really were. These are such good songs that when it fails, you can look the other way, and when it wins, you celebrate. For a lesser band, this probably wouldn’t have flew.

In the writing of this essay, I decided to look back on the reviews that With the Lights Out and Sliver got upon their respective releases. Some seemed more interested in ruminating on Kurt’s death and the hole he left than anything actually featured. Others were looking for a postscript, a secret treasure trove of musical gems from where “You Know You’re Right” came from. Others still were looking for the final word on the band, the definitive Nirvana release.

In all honesty, none of them are the correct way of looking at the boxset. You’ll get the most out of it if you look it like work tapes first, then about Nirvana as a band, and then about Kurt. Some people have a hard time separating the two—after all, it’s the man’s voice, the man’s songs, and the man’s guitar playing all over it, right? While the answer to that is yes, it discounts the rest of the Nirvana story for what’s honestly melodrama. Kurt Cobain was an interesting person for sure, but there’s only so many times you can sell me a tortured soul. How many of them have we had in rock? What, Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, Syd Barrett, Thom Yorke, Siouxsie Sioux, kind of a lot. At some point, you have to give up the ghost (literally) and look at the music.

Kurt with some downtime during a rehearsal

Put it like this: If you’re here for songwriting intricacies, you’ll appreciate it. If you’re swayed by the differences between “Pay to Play” and “Stay Away”, you’re the target audience for With the Lights Out. If you’re here for a revealing look at Aberdeen’s folk hero, it won’t have much to offer you. There’s no deep, dramatic moment where you hear Kurt strum on a line like “It’s another opiate, but to me, it’s everything” and get it, I’m sorry to say.

This is by no means a box for everyone. It is, however, a box for the right people. I’m certainly glad to own it.

I’ve put together what’s, in my opinion, a better Sliver as a Spotify playlist than the actual Sliver we got. I can’t imagine anyone who’s genuinely interested in this stuff wouldn’t spring for the full set anyway, but if you’re not sold on three hours of Nirvana demos, I hope this just about sums it up.


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