For someone who became a certified Tragic Rock Legend within hours of his death, Kurt Cobain has kept a fairly low profile: His official posthumous sonic output has amounted to only two concert albums and one compilation, small potatoes next to 2Pac. He’s still an influence, of course, but mostly on Nickelback and Staind, who’ve reduced his sound to a simplistic formula.
As if to make up for lost time and remind us of his impact, With the Lights Out is a volcanic eruption of Nirvana material: three audio discs of mostly unissued music and one DVD of rarely seen footage. It’s no surprise that most of it’s raw; it is a surprise that most of it’s worth hearing. In the first (and grungiest) of the CDs, Cobain’s early songs burn with thrash-metal energy, bratty humor, and, most of all, ambition. The CD reveals how swiftly his sound and vision crystallized. One moment (1987) he’s cranking out Led Zep’s ”Heartbreaker”; less than a year later, he’s demoing an original, ”If You Must,” in which the Nirvana blueprint — soft-loud lurch, scarred-throat voice — is all but established.
Disc 2’s Nevermind leftovers and outtakes are, of course, strong. How much of the current, far-more-carefree alt-rock will sound as jarringly vibrant as a rough mix of ”Breed” does 13 years later? In solo takes, ”Been a Son” becomes a mountain folk song, ”Sliver” the hippest kiddie sing-along ever. (Too bad the band never cut the driving ”Opinion.”) With each new song, though, Cobain’s torment sets in. Largely chronicling the making of In Utero, disc 3 grows progressively more chaotic as he disassembles Nirvana, starts to fall apart, or both. Cobain had one of the great, expressive yowls in American music — no fake angst there — but it couldn’t always carry him. At one point, he’s reduced to impersonating bloated-period Jim Morrison. A ray of light appears in taut demos of ”Do Re Mi” and ”You Know You’re Right.” But to recall someone’s wise old saying, the light at the end of the tunnel could easily be an oncoming train. Soon after, he was dead.
The DVD offers live clips of varying quality, including a fascinating 1988 videotape of the band jamming in a small room, Cobain singing to the wall. In the final segment, filmed the year before his suicide, Cobain sings an expressionless cover of the schlock oldie ”Seasons in the Sun,” interspersed with footage of him, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl cavorting during happier days. It’s blatantly sentimental, but effective. Like most of this laid-bare box, it resurrects the feelings that emerged after his death — sadness, loss, anger — but also makes you appreciate Cobain with fresh eyes and ears. It’s doubtful we’ll feel the same when Nickelback break up.