This summer, a Michigan bookstore called Brilliant Books issued refunds to customers who were disappointed by author Harper Lee’s recently released Go Set a Watchman, an archival draft of a novel that was was written prior to Lee’s 1960 classic To Kill a Mocking Bird. In a statement, the store warned prospective buyers that Go Set a Watchman should be considered “as an academic insight rather than as a nice summer novel.”
Similar logic can be applied to Kurt Cobain’s Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings. This is not a proper album, and it shouldn’t be regarding as the debut solo effort from the late Nirvana frontman. Rather, it’s a collection of oddments found in Cobain’s private collection of homemade cassettes during the making of Brett Morgen’s recent documentary Montage of Heck. These tapes weren’t made for public consumption — in most cases, they probably weren’t intended to be heard by anyone other than their maker — meaning that this is a bit like peeking into an artist’s sketchbook or a writer’s journal.
As such, The Home Recordings isn’t designed to be enjoyed in the same way as Nirvana’s brilliant (and sadly small) catalogue. Rather, it’s a glimpse into the subconscious of the ‘90s most iconic rock star, and it provides interesting moments for those seeking to understand his artistic process. The preliminary solo version of Nirvana’s “Been a Son,” for example, consists of gibberish lyrics, and Cobain finishes the demo by separately performing the bassline as a guide for future reference. “Something in the Way” appears as a distorted electric dirge in a medley of unfinished material, “Sappy” is a chilling ballad based around stark arpeggios, and “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” is delivered with a slowed-down acoustic chug.
The collection’s tracklist is padded with a few abstract pieces: Cobain speaks in tongue-in-cheek accents and sings in a country bumpkin moan on “The Yodel Song,” fucks around with wah-wah and a fuzz pedal on “Reverb Experiment,” and sets an uncharacteristically jaunty mood with the instrumental sketches “The Happy Guitar” and “Letters to Frances.”
All told, the album’s 13-track standard version contains only a couple of proper unheard songs. “She Only Lies” is a bass-based composition that doesn’t make much of an impression beyond its spiteful lyrics (“I really hate her / And I know that you will hate her too”). The collection’s most intriguing inclusion is the ramshackle folk-grunge song “Desire”; Cobain sings this in a strangled, scratchy whisper that’s a little too harsh to be enjoyable, but the simple refrain and sweet pop melodies sound like an “In Bloom”-sized anthem in the making. It’s fun — although a little frustrating — to imagine how good the song could have been in Nirvana ever got a hold of it.
Montage of Heck is as messy and intimate as the documentary of the same name (large parts of which were made up of raw home movie footage), but it’s thankfully much less harrowing. While the film traced his tragic downfall, these demos capture Cobain doing what he loved: creating music and goofing around. Even darker moments, like the ghostly cover of the Beatles’ “And I Love Her,” are intriguing rather than upsetting.
Whether or not this amounts to something enjoyable depends entirely on how you approach it. These recordings don’t reveal Cobain’s genius, and they don’t lift the lid on any undiscovered treasures. Rather, this is a fans-only curiosity that needs to be considered within the context of his legacy, and in that regard, it’s a captivating study. To once again quote Brilliant Books and its comments on Go Set a Watchman, this is “a rough beginning for a classic, but only that.”