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Album Review: Montage Of Heck: The Home Recordings by Kurt Cobain
Average, Based on 14 Critics
Rolling Stone - 80 Based on rating 4/5
This powerful collection – a companion to the HBO documentary Montage of Heck – plays like Kurt Cobain’s phantom memoir. Director Brett Morgen went through 200 hours of cassette tapes to find these song sketches and demos. Some of the 31 tracks will resonate only with deep Nirvana scholars, and the album could be seen as stretching an incredible legacy a little too thin.
In my review of Sub Pop’s 2009 reissue of Bleach, I mused, “Twenty years after the release of their full-length debut and fifteen after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, I feel like we’re finally approaching a place where we can look past Nirvana as Gen X zeitgeist, Nirvana as cautionary tale for the media-age, and Nirvana as megalithic cultural phenomenon to objectively assess Nirvana as an honest-to-goodness rock band. ” I was, of course, kidding myself. My entire musical formation took place in the shadow of Kurt Cobain, in the cultural sea change that he helped to usher in, in the dense contextual web he tried to assemble for his fans, in the pitch black umbra cast by his death.
Sporadically interesting archive anthology from the bottom of a much-scraped barrel. Director Brett Morgen’s freewheeling documentary on Kurt Cobain, Montage Of Heck, made extensive use of the late Nirvana frontman’s private archive of audio cassette recordings. ADVERTISINGinRead invented by Teads .
Watching Brett Morgen’s 2015 documentary Montage of Heck, assembled from Kurt Cobain’s own journals, home-taped monologues, and family home videos, you felt a profound sense of intimacy, even violation. Eavesdropping on Cobain has been a lurid national pastime for nearly 20 years now, from 2003's Journals to the scraps collected on the With the Lights Out box, but Morgen took us closer than even the most brazen imagined we should be allowed to go: Courtney and Kurt, naked and bantering in the bathroom on home video about who gets to play the Reading Festival that year (Courtney, pregnant with Frances, complains jokingly about having to stay home and “get big and fat”). Cobain, nodding off and holding his toddler.
Perhaps buoyed by the critical acclaim heaped on his documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Brett Morgen has been talking up its accompanying soundtrack in no uncertain terms. Assembled by the director from cassettes the Nirvana frontman recorded between 1987 and his death in 1994, Montage of Heck – The Home Recordings is, Morgen insists, not merely a compilation, but “a concept album, a journey, an experience”. One track, which features Cobain segueing from a fairly obvious homage to the Pixies called You Can’t Change Me to another fairly obvious homage to the Pixies called Burn My Britches, then stopping and playing a nascent version of the chorus from Nevermind’s Something in the Way, is “almost like a punk opera”.
Kurt Cobain died at age 27 in 1994 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound; unlike Elvis or Tupac, even his conspiracy theorists don’t think he’s still alive. This year’s be-all end-all documentary, Montage of Heck, makes the wise choice of ending when he ends; his daughter Frances served as executive producer and was adamant that it not be romantic. One of the centerpieces, if you must call it that, is an animated retelling of a high-school Cobain’s supposed attempt at sexual activity with a classmate who was labeled “retarded.” The aftermath of school kids’ torment and the girl’s enraged father led him to lie down on railroad tracks.
It’s time to stop buying Nirvana records. No, not those three studio albums. Not Incesticide or Unplugged. I’m talking about the endless procession of box sets, greatest hits compilations, and rarities collections that descend upon the headphoned masses every holiday season like some garish parade of the dead.
Simultaneously billed as the first Kurt Cobain solo album and the soundtrack to Brett Morgan's 2015 documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, this mangled beast of a record is indeed both. No other records are credited to Kurt Cobain, and this album, in either its single- or double-disc edition, wouldn't exist if Morgan hadn't stumbled upon a cache of homemade cassettes when researching his film. So, truth in advertising in that regard.
Kurt Cobain was an unreliable narrator. He liked it that way. His self-mythologizing started years before he got famous—there’s those tall tales of living beneath Aberdeen’s Young Street Bridge, for example, or the stomach condition that he could only treat with hard drugs. But all the contradictions, in-jokes, and ambiguities have only drawn us closer, giving us more books and tributes and movies hoping to reveal the real Cobain.
There are a few lines about Kurt Cobain in “Strange Tools,” an enlightening new book by the philosopher and cognitive scientist Alva Noë about what art can teach us about ourselves. He’s reacting to an earlier opinion about Cobain’s band Nirvana written by Roger Scruton, the conservative English philosopher of aesthetics. Mr. Scruton argued that the group represents a vanishing point in the pop era, where “the audience does not listen to the music, but through it, to the performers” because, he said, performers like Cobain are shaman-like, and there is not much musical material to listen to, and what there is tends to be crude or simple.
By many accounts, Kurt Cobain really wanted to be the world's most famous weirdo. He was ambitious until he became successful, and then, reflexively, publicly exhibited as many left-of-centre tendencies possible. Those of us who never knew him felt like we did because he cultivated an Everyman persona even though he was extraordinary at most things he put his energy into.
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.
Right up until the final weeks approaching his death in April 1994, the urge to create art - in any form - was something that never left Kurt Cobain. Even as his working relationship with his Nirvana bandmates began to unravel, new ideas - be they for songs, videos, side projects, record labels - continued to spring from Cobain’s mind. These come well-documented: whether studio-recorded (see the 2002-released, "You Know You’re Right"), home demos of tracks that never came to full fruition ("Do Re Mi"), or in countless ideas jotted down - with varying levels of progress - in his now well-circulated journals.
Munchkin voices, yodeling, a meditation on sea monkeys and Paula Abdul, distracted guitar playing, a phone call for his girlfriend that interrupts a "recording session" — if that sounds compelling, Kurt Cobain's "Montage of Heck — The Home Recordings" (Universal) is for you. "The Home Recordings" is a companion to director Brett Morgen's authorized Cobain documentary, "Montage of Heck." Morgen was given access to Cobain's massive archive, which contained about 200 hours of tape. Now they've been condensed into a 13-track CD, a double vinyl album and a 31-track box set.