Sure, it's not closure, but nor should it be
Once music has become “historic”, the temptation is to suspend it in amber, press it between Perspex, treat it with the kind of reverence usually reserved for papal edicts. While it’s certainly difficult to think about Nirvana without taking a deep, portentous breath, they’ve never quite been subsumed into the world of the academic retrospective. Not only has this whole messy odyssey never reached “closure” – the lawsuit that brought this long-awaited compilation into existence proves that – but the music itself has remained a flourishing concern. You only have to look round any shopping centre on a Saturday afternoon to realise that Nirvana have not yet been caught on the inter-generational cattle-grid of fashion, that even music fans who were digging Big Bird in 1991 have learned to love ‘Nevermind’ and the associated merchandise.
Of course, this compilation alone can never fully explain their lasting success. Kurt Cobain has spent longer in the public eye as a frozen, kohl-eyed icon than a living breathing rock’n’roll star, while the grim soap-opera that surrounded him has never lost its prurient allure. Yet it’s testament to the ferocious imperative of these songs that they should remain so complete, so undamaged. Purists might complain that this compilation sanitises Nirvana, scrapes off all the perverse sludge and punk-rock slime that fed their poppier moments and sure enough, there’s no ‘Territorial Pissings’, no ‘Scentless Apprentice’, only one track from ‘Bleach’ (the relatively steady ‘About A Girl’). This record very much represents “Nirvana the rock stars” as opposed to “Nirvana the underground band”. But complaining about that is like claiming you preferred Neil Armstrong’s early stuff: the reason Kurt, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic become stars was because they hit a universal nerve. Drearily, it’s possible to put it down to timing – college rock hit an impasse, Morrissey was over, My Bloody Valentine, Pixies and Sonic Youth had reached cult critical mass – something had to boil over into the mainstream. Listen to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ though, and it seems far more fitting to put the subsequent explosion down to the glories of chaos theory than a miserable gap in the market.
This unique impetus is never more apparent than in the “new” song ‘You Know You’re Right’. Obviously, it sounds like Nirvana, yet even after all those years of imitators and marketing stupidity, all that time where familiarity should have bred contempt, this white-knuckle catharsis still sounds as strange and individual as it might have in 1994. The Vines or, God forbid, Puddle Of Mudd, might “sound like Nirvana“, but they don’t, not really, not any more than Oasis really sound like The Beatles.
Following ‘You Know You’re Right’ is a chronological countdown; ‘Sliver’ and ‘Been A Son’ from ‘Incesticide’ are followed by most of side one of ‘Nevermind’. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ should evoke nothing more than dancing goth cheerleaders and a surfeit of MTV flashbacks, but it’s still the alt-rock nation’s Star Spangled Banner, while ‘Come As You Are’, ‘Lithium’ and ‘In Bloom’ prove that the first side of ‘Nevermind’ could match the first side of any record in history. It’s all here: the rejection of Wonderbread masculinity in ‘In Bloom’; the classic rock alienation of ‘Teen Spirit’ and ‘Lithium’ cryptically recast for Generation X; ‘Come As You Are’ exemplifying Cobain’s disembodied symbolism.
That’s the past dealt with. Even more than ‘You Know You’re Right’, however, it’s the tracks from ‘In Utero’ that signpost a lost future. ‘Rape Me’ and ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ are fine songs but it’s the crumpled beauty of ‘All Apologies’ that really stretches the dynamic, particularly when combined with the terrifying ‘Unplugged’ version of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ buckling under Cobain’s tortured double meanings. Whatever this was, it wasn’t “grunge”.
It’s a fine compilation, a jolt of recognition and a touching affirmation that even something that has been sold and sold and sold again can endure. Sure, it’s not closure, but nor should it be.