KURT COBAIN WAS NOT a generation’s representative, a spokesperson, or even a rock star. Many tried to press him into these and other molds, much to his frustration, but it happens that he was a songwriter always on the search for a new sound. When he died, by medical estimation on the fifth of April in 1994, some (among them R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe) believed he was about to abandon the grunge formula for which he had become known. There is evidence he was about to quit music altogether. In any case, the posthumous album, MTV Unplugged in New York, is the best indication we have of the band’s unrealized prospects. Perhaps Nirvana’s most accessible and widely known recording, Unplugged is an accomplished example of musical understatement, disclosing Cobain’s intuitive ability to compose songs (or in the case of The Vaselines, Meat Puppets, Lead Belly, and David Bowie covers, select them) which complement his particular vocal and playing styles.
Nirvana made only three studio recordings: Bleach (1989), Nevermind (1991), and In Utero (1993). These albums demonstrate Nirvana’s ability to evolve, Bleach’s lowfi-hardcore approach — much in the style of Black Flag — being at some remove from In Utero’s dynamic and melodic character. In Utero is what musicians term a “roomsound” album, recorded through the labour-intensive method of judicious microphone placement and best listened to with headphones. Its sonic range, from massive throbbing rawness to tender restraint, is unmatched in recorded pop music. The songs are concise and well-crafted. Kurt Cobain devoured a great many musical clichés, and by his own admission engaged in outright musical thievery, but somehow in doing so the result was a composition that bore his personal stamp. The scandal is that long after Nirvana, much of the alternative music genre they themselves had legitimized was made according to a formula of which Cobain was already by 1994 tiring.
Physically and emotionally, Cobain was never a well man. Although he despised cliché in rock, his ailments contributed to the actively indulged addictions and self-destructiveness which are the chief rock clichés. Cobain presented himself as a political man, outspoken against racism, sexism, and homophobia. Claiming to be misunderstood or simply not understood at all, he harboured contempt for the people who came out to Nirvana concerts. The disgust he felt toward his audience is apparent as early as the album Nevermind, and was carried into the third and last Nirvana recording, In Utero. This attitude is both hypocritical and beyond defence, since Cobain’s supposed political commitments have little outside his own claims to substantiate them. He wrote of John Lennon as an idol, and there may be something to this. Both men were gifted songwriters, both reshaped the popular music of their day, and both held within them a great measure of anger and frustration which paradoxically fueled their musical output and popularity. Could it be that Cobain wanted to be regarded as a political figure, in the manner of Lennon? This is a weird idea, but he did attack the people who didn’t get the message. In the end, he came to resent the nihilistic role into which the music industry and media put him.
One could argue that we have been waiting since the demise of Nirvana for the next band that will make music vital and interesting once again. When Nirvana released Bleach, pop music had exhausted the technical and commercial yields of the computer chip. The synthesizer had reached a creative cul-de-sac and the electric guitar had no champion to fill the void. Its greatest practitioner, Stevie Ray Vaughan, died in a plane crash. The most compelling thing in mainstream commercial music around the time of Bleach was U2’s Achtung Baby, but even as it reached the peak of relevance, U2 was already a victim of its own success. The band’s sound was instantly recognizable and widely imitated, both certain indications of calcified formula.
Nirvana did what all great bands do: they made everyone else catch up. Mainstream radio accomodated alternative music’s idiosyncracies, in the case of Nirvana the confrontation of Cobain’s distorted guitar, vocal roughness, sonic dissonance, and deliberately nonsensical lyrics. Even when the guitar chord progression of a Cobain song conforms to pop convention, his chord voicings and use of off-the-path embellishments such as suspended chords render his sound peculiar. To the uneducated ear, a Kurt Cobain song just sounds different. This is the case even when, and maybe particularly when, the trademark Nirvana use of soft-loud-soft (which they derived from the Pixies: so perhaps it’s their trademark) is absent, such as on the Unplugged recording.
Whatever one’s view of Cobain, it is undeniable that he set pop music on a new course. At the very least he may be credited with injecting new life into a tired genre at a time when it was much needed. That is a high compliment to render to an artist.