There’s something unsettling about any artist’s posthumous work. But it’s particularly macabre in the case of Kurt Cobain, whose relationship to Nirvana’s music was complicated. The grunge icon often dismissed Nirvana’s 1991 breakthrough Nevermind as “too slick,” and he was unhappy with Steve Albini’s initial mixes for their final 1993 studio album, In Utero.
So you have to assume Cobain would not want you listening to Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings, the companion soundtrack to the exquisite doc released earlier this year. Curated by Heck director Brett Morgen, the compilation has hours’ worth of Cobain’s cassette demos, saved by widow Courtney Love and used by Morgen to tell much of Cobain’s story in his own words. The content is exceptionally raw: Most songs are snippets or free-form instrumental noodles. Vocals are rough and mumbly. The few tracks that could be counted as actual songs are primarily early solo demos of Nirvana tunes like “Been a Son.” Other tracks aren’t even music, but rather sound tests (“Reverb Experiment”) and crazy-eyed comedy skits.
What’s most compelling about the set is how it captures Cobain’s passion and intensity—not his slacker-junkie persona. You can hear the restlessness in half-formed but hypnotic musings like “Burn the Rain” and “Poison’s Gone.” Nirvana’s music tempered noisy metal sludge with crisp Beatlesque melodicism, and both extremes live in these recordings, including the plodding headbanger “Rehash.”
It’s hard to grade Montage of Heck. Considering sound quality and execution of ideas, it’s in the lower C range. But as a cultural artifact that provides an inside look at the creative process of an enigmatic genius, it’s absolutely indispensable. A