This week, details of Kurt Cobain’s ‘Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings’ were finally released. The album, which ties in with the recent Brett Morgen-directed documentary of the same name, will come out via Universal Music on December 4 and is set to feature 31 tracks of demos, spoken word pieces and full songs. But are posthumous albums a legitimate treasure trove for fans or a cynical exercise in squeezing as much cash out of a late artist as possible? NME writers Jordan Bassett and Lisa Wright argue it out…
Late, great artists’ unreleased material should be left alone, says Lisa Wright
“Imagine if, after you’d died, someone trawled through the recycle bin on your laptop, dredged up all those half-drafted emails and to-do lists and showed all your family and friends. That half-baked idea for a novel that sounded genius in the sleep-deprived corners of 3am? That’s there. That drunken selfie photoshoot you decided to do when you got home one Saturday night? That’s there too. The racy email you wrote to your boss and then realised was a terrible, terrible move? Oh yes.
If you’re getting the fear even thinking about it, then that’s absolutely justified. Our lives are a series of drafts, rewrites and final versions. We test things out in our head or in private before we hone the ideas that we’re happy to put out in the world to represent us. This is particularly true if you’re creating something artistic. Just because a set of drafts or demos exist in the world, doesn’t mean that they exist for the world, and releasing them posthumously when their author can’t object seems like an intrusion of privacy of the highest order.
Most recently, this has cropped up with ‘Montage Of Heck: The Home Recordings’. Documentary director Brett Morgen previously stated that we’re “going to hear [Kurt] do things you never expected to come out of him” on the release. Of course you can understand the appeal of this for fans – especially considering the relatively small body of released Nirvana material – but maybe we wouldn’t “expect” this stuff from Cobain because that’s not the side of him that he wanted the public to see?
Anyone that’s watched the documentary will come away from it knowing that the troubled singer was fiercely afraid of being shown up. “He hated being humiliated,” says Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. “He always wanted to win,” said his stepmother. Given this mindset, you can’t help but think that Kurt would be mortified that all these secret, private sketches and ideas, the ones that were meant just for him – the ones that he, ultimately, didn’t think were good enough to be released yet – were being put out in the world.
The posthumous, cobbled-together release is one that’s been going on for years. Jeff Buckley’s ‘Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk’ was released in 1998 following the singer’s death and included tracks that Buckley had already expressed his dissatisfaction with. ‘Milk And Honey’, a joint album from John Lennon and Yoko Ono, made the curious move of melding her new recordings with demos recording by John prior to his murder four years earlier – an anticlimactic enforced final release from one of the greatest musicians of all time. Tellingly, Universal Music CEO David Joseph destroyed Amy Winehouse’s unreleased demos after her death so they wouldn’t be put out, on “moral” grounds.
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As Joseph clearly agrees, it shouldn’t be our place to decide what becomes of work that isn’t ours. Should we raid the creative cupboards of the dead for the sake of a few intriguing sonic curios or a quick buck? I say no.”
Why when done respectfully, they can be worthy additions to dead artists’ legacies
“I see Lisa’s point. But these aren’t drunken selfies or racy emails – in Kurt’s case, they’re the works of a musical genius and, as such, are of historical interest. When Kurt’s diaries were raked over and published as Journals in 2002, it felt like a violation of privacy because there’s no reason to explore his shopping lists or interior monologues about addiction. But when Nirvana reinvented alternative music and were, in turn, influenced by The Beatles – isn’t it justifiable to listen to Kurt’s interpretation of The Fab Four’s ‘And I Love Her’?
When it comes to the Montage of Heck album, the emphasis is on the appropriate aspect of Kurt’s life: his music. Posthumous albums aren’t always about ringing cash registers – though they’re potentially lucrative; in 2014 Johnny Cash’s estate revealed there were “four or five” Man In Black records in the pipeline, more than 10 years after his death. The 2011 Amy Winehouse collection ‘Lioness: Hidden Treasures’ and the 2010 Michael Jackson album ‘Michael’ were about saying goodbye to two legendary artists. Again, the emphasis was on the art they created, and not their much-publicised personal lives (leave that to nosy filmmakers).
In Winehouse and Jackson’s cases, the marketing is important, as the labels were careful not to bill these records as ‘lost’ albums or works the artists would have released. It’s about exploring musicians’ creativity, respecting their legacies and helping ensure they’re remembered for the right reasons. Brett Morgan used extracts from Journals to create Montage of Heck, with certain diary entries brought to life, and in this sense the soundtrack is arguably more justifiable than the film it accompanies.”