By Mark Kemp
Three songs into the 13-track Montage of Heck, a compilation of raw, lo-fi home demos and other recordings Kurt Cobain made, is a happy little acoustic instrumental titled, appropriately, “Happy Guitar.” Its Gypsy-jazz chording and fingerpicking reveal a perhaps unexpected fascination the late Nirvana front man seemed to have had with guitar legend Django Reinhardt. For the most part, though, these acoustic and single-electric guitar home recordings—some of which appeared in the recent montage of Cobain home movies of the same name—are the naked nuggets of songs and ideas that would change the world when the singer and guitarist plugged in with his band and wailed away.
The compilation includes fragments of “Scoff” (from Bleach), “Been a Son” (Incestiside), “Francis Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” (In Utero), “Sappy” (originally released as “Verse Chorus Verse” on the No Alternative compilation), and “Clean Up Before She Comes” (a rawer version of an already-raw acoustic song from the 2004 Nirvana box set With the Lights Out). One of the more tender moments is Cobain faithfully strumming an acoustic guitar and singing “And I Love Her,” by one of his favorite bands, the Beatles. An expanded, 31-track version of Montage of Heck features goofy spoken-word interludes (“Sea Monkeys”) and spoken narratives that seem inspired by Jack Kerouac (“Aberdeen”)—all very stream-of-consciousness, like the music—and a sweet instrumental, “Letters to Frances,” for his then-new baby.
If you have a low threshold for sloppy, lo-fi recordings—or for Nirvana—these sets are not for you. But if Cobain’s music moves you—or if you simply appreciate the vulnerability that a lone acoustic or electric guitar gives an ultra-talented young man tortured by life and trying to find some meaning in it—Montage of Heck and its expanded edition offer gems to spare.