The soundtrack to this year's excellent Kurt Cobain documentary offers a glimpse of a genius at work
Genius is a messy, mystifying, wholly subjective thing. Were you to play ‘Montage Of Heck: The Home Recordings’ to someone who had no idea who Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was, you’d struggle to convince them it represented the unfiltered work of a songwriting savant. Yet precisely because you know who’s messing around with the effects pedal on the instrumental ‘Reverb Experiment’, or doing the caterwauling on ‘The Yodel Song’, the temptation is to look for method and meaning where it doesn’t always exist. That’s often the trouble with genius: it’s as impossible for the vessel to quantify or understand as it is for everyone else.
Take the acoustic demo of ‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle’ (from 1993’s ‘In Utero’) that’s included here. The song’s basic structure was evidently in place when Cobain sat down to record it, but the chorus is still just a vague, mumbled vocalisation to be fleshed out later until the moment when – seemingly out of nowhere he blurts the line, “//I miss the comfort in being sad”//, and the whole thing suddenly snaps into focus. Something similar happens during the bad-tempered, never-to-be-heard-from-again ‘Burn My Britches’, when he clumsily segues into the hymnal refrain of ‘Nevermind’ track ‘Something In The Way’ and you can almost hear the light bulb buzzing above his head. It’s those sudden, inexplicable breakthroughs, those little lightning strikes of inspiration, that this compilation is ultimately concerned with. And it’s in those moments when these crappily-recorded fumblings become a source of real fascination.
Much like director Brett Morgen’s documentary, ‘Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings’ makes a voyeur of its listener; nothing here was intended for release, and to use a phrase Cobain would’ve probably loathed, that’s undoubtedly its unique selling point. More unsettling still is the thought that these recordings technically constitute Cobain’s first solo album, yet it’s hard to sit through to his morbidly beautiful cover of The Beatles’ ‘And I Love Her’, or the larval versions of ‘Been a Son’ and ‘Sappy’, and regret having done so. Maybe it’s not What Kurt Would Have Wanted, but for the rest of us, ‘Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings’ is a valuable glimpse into an unknowable process.