Back in April 2015, when NME interviewed Montage Of Heck director Brett Morgen about how he turned seven years of research into a powerful film about Kurt Cobain’s life, he revealed loose plans for the release of its soundtrack. “There’s probably another 45 minutes of unheard music, but it could be 40 or 60 or whatever. There’s a lot more than you might initially realise,” was his tantalising explanation. If you thought that was exciting, this week (October 2) the album’s rumoured tracklisting has been detailed ahead of its release on November 6 – the day the film comes out on DVD.
Speculation about the possible release of unheard Nirvana or solo Kurt Cobain material was sparked by the film’s mere announcement. It takes its name from ‘Montage Of Heck’, a disorientating mixtape featuring songs by artists including Cher, The Beatles and Black Flag that Kurt recorded two versions of in 1988. The tape also features recordings of the singer urinating and vomiting and has been available as a bootleg for 15 years. Morgen has tweeted about listening to “a mind blowing 12-minute acoustic Cobain track” and talked in various interviews about the 107 cassette tapes he trawled through when making the film, but has been careful not to divulge too much about the precise makeup of the soundtrack. With its release just over a month away, here’s what we know so far.
There were a lot of recordings to choose from
The most frustrating thing about this record is that, even when it’s finally released, we still won’t have heard everything Morgen has. There were some 200 hours of audio on those 107 cassettes, from which the director mined 30-50 demos. Describing the process to New York magazine Bedford + Bowery in May, Morgen sounded like a kid who’d been given the keys to a sweet shop after closing time (“I remember thinking as I gazed upon this, ‘What did I just get myself into? Where is all this stuff?'”). His wide-eyed (and obsessive) descriptions of being inside the room that houses Kurt’s things – an industrial storage unit lined with Kurt’s paintings and his guitars next to their open cases – are enough to make hairs stand on end. The list of what exactly is on the tapes is a long one: jam sessions with Courtney Love, various friends and Nirvana, his first demos, Beatles covers, Fecal Matter demos, mixtapes like ‘Montage Of Heck’, sound effects and serious and humorous spoken-word recordings (Morgen made special mention of a story Kurt recorded about losing his virginity). Morgen used this wealth of material to create “the ultimate Cobain experience”. His forthright description of Kurt’s role in the filmmaking process is electrifying: “With Kurt Cobain we have an opportunity to tell a story unlike any you’ve ever seen, from the inside out rather than from the outside in. And that’s because Kurt, in essence, was creating an oral and visual document of his experiences throughout his life and he did it in such a raw and visceral way. Kurt is not just the focal point, the star, but he’s also doing the audio design, the score and all the songs we hear.”
It’s just Kurt and his guitar
Though the cassettes Morgen painstakingly combed through featured everything described above, the soundtrack is straight up Kurt. “These [songs] are all just Kurt by himself with the guitar,” the director told Billboard, adding that the tracks are by no means finished or even properly recorded. Morgen described them as “extraordinary” and said they “further our understanding of Kurt, both as a musician and a man and provide a tremendous insight into his [creative] process.” It’s worth noting that, given that the tapes were all unmarked, the songs are as-yet-untitled. But one of Morgen’s most exciting tidbits came when, in the same interview, he described the soundtrack as “curated to feel as though one were sitting in Kurt’s living room watching him create over the course of an afternoon.”
There’s a Beatles cover
Kurt once said, “I like The Beatles, but I hate Paul McCartney.” Anyone who’s seen the film may have been surprised to hear a pained cover of The Beatles’ ‘And I Love Her’ – a McCartney-penned song released as a single in July 1964. Morgen has said he “found it on a random tape,” adding that no one knew it existed, not even Kurt’s bandmates, his management or his wife.
Apart from that, there’s the 12-minute acoustic song Morgen tweeted about and a track he inserted into the film before its wide-release in American cinemas this month. In another interview with Billboard, he declined to reveal where in the film the track appeared but said there’s evidence to suggest it was recorded in 1991, because it appeared on a tape that also contained sketches for ‘Old Age’, which Kurt was working on around the time ‘Nevermind’ was recorded. The article described the song as having a “familiar, dense slow-shred-slow guitar sound” and said the lyrics – sung in falsetto – are mostly drowned out, save for lines that sound like ”Wonder how I breathe” and ”I’m a bad man”. More generally, Morgen has said that the album ranges from “thrash to ragtime and everything in between”.
There’s comedy as well as music
In NME’s April interview, Morgen remembered “a bunch of recordings where Kurt was trying to do some of his spoken word.” “He was cracking himself up,” he explained, “and he was by himself! He’s like, ‘This is so stupid,’ and he’d try and read it again. He’s just… cracking himself up. I’d never heard anything like it.” It’s unclear whether he was referencing the same recording, but earlier this month, Morgen told Billboard that the soundtrack will include “a sketch comedy routine featuring Kurt voicing all the characters.”
It’s lighter than you might expect
If the idea of a record pieced together as if it were Kurt at work in his sitting room sounds at odds with the more harrowing passages in the film, that’s because it’s supposed to. Morgen has repeatedly admitted that the soundtrack will present something lighter than the darkness often explored by Nirvana. As he told Billboard, “You really get a sense of how happy he was simply creating by himself. His lyrics are really playful, and, at times, you can feel his smile and warmth coming through.” This spirit is reflected in the actual sound of the album too. Kurt’s experiments with sound collage and panning effects means the songs seem to move from one speaker to another, listening to the record is, according to Morgan, “a sensory experience that really envelops you”.