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Nirvana – With the Lights Out

Nirvana With the Lights Out Geffen/UME

Listening to this, I can’t help but think of the wisecracking carnival barker in that famous 1960s antiwar song “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin-to-Die Rag”: “You can be the first one on your block / To have your boy come home in a box!” Kurt Cobain has indeed come home in a box, rectangular rather than heart-shaped, after years of legal wrangling between his bandmates and his widow. Sure, the material on the three-CD/one-DVD With the Lights Out–outtakes, B-sides, demos, live cuts, radio performances, and video footage–is mostly great. But this kind of posthumous vault-cleaning is always depressing, especially when it illuminates roads not taken, which this set does. So prepare to be depressed, when you’re not being blown away.

Or cracking up. Disc One recalls how funny Nirvana could be, at least in the early days. It begins with a 1987 live cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker.” Someone yells the title, and Kurt yells back, “I don’t know how to play it”–before ripping through the song almost perfectly, speed-wank breakdown included. It’s not the only Zep cover: There’s also a partial “Moby Dick” and, on the DVD, a startling version of “Immigrant Song,” from a rehearsal-cum-hang videotaped at bassist Krist Novoselic’s mom’s house. It’s amusing to see the self-deprecating punk aping the self-aggrandizing rock gods. But you quickly realize that musically, Cobain’s not kidding. The camera pans, mid-song, to the face of a beer-swilling dude on the sidelines; his slack-jawed amazement is priceless.

At bottom, Nirvana was always a mix of Zeppelin-esque heavitude and arty punk rock. You hear the latter in the early demos here: the Ween-like “Beans,” the strummy indie-pop tune “Clean Up Before She Comes,” and the dubby postpunk of “Don’t Want It All.” There’s also a 1989 trio of Leadbelly covers–the howling acoustic “They Hung Him on a Cross,” a bluesjamming “Grey Goose,” and a rockabilly-ish “Ain’t It a Shame”– that show the band experimenting in ways they never did on their album releases.

Disc Two has acoustic demos both familiar (“Lithium”) and unknown (the brilliant “Opinion”), plus bootleg fodder like “Verse Chorus Verse” that shows the band hitting its creative peak. Things get scary by Disc Three, beginning with two versions of “Rape Me”–a brittle acoustic take and a shredding band demo in which you hear a baby (Frances Bean?) wailing in the background. The DVD ends with a 1993 cover of ’70s pop hit “Seasons in the Sun”–you know, “Good-bye my friend it’s hard to die / When all the birds are singing in the sky”– with Kurt singing and playing drums, intercut with heartbreakingly goofy home-movie footage. Like the Zep covers, it’s the sound of a guy who penned his own script, playing it for all he’s worth.

Grade: A