All Apologies

Nirvana's box set takes the best band of the '90s and reveals the very worst

Nirvana
With the Lights Out
Geffen

The primary thing you will learn from Nirvana's three-CD, one-DVD, rag-and-bone banquet With the Lights Out (Geffen) isn't that litigation makes the world go round, or that Kurt Cobain's genius couldn't be contained by his band's official albums, or that there's a cultist born every minute. No, what you learn is that Nirvana used to suck. Not in the peanut-gallery sense, either--now that they're gone forever, they'll stay frozen in time as the great band they became--but in the sense that almost nothing on disc one of this box would make you care about ever hearing them again.

That's mostly because this box set sounds like shit, for which you can blame the source material (cassettes, mostly) and the fairly indifferent remastering job done here. The primary difference between disc one of With the Lights Out and the Clash's The Vanilla Tapes, the unlistenable demos Epic used to fatten its deluxe reissue of London Calling earlier this fall, is that the Clash were just trying to figure out how to play the damn songs they'd written and made some cassettes to guide them. Nirvana, by contrast, were giving it their all; at that point, they were just too unformed to make much of it.

Which is fine--flailing around in search of an identity is what young bands do. And some of that identity is already clear here: "If You Must" would have buoyed the spotty Bleach; "Clean Up Before She Comes" could have been finished as something worthwhile. But the only thing most of these alternate takes, demos, live cuts (a lousy version of Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker," recorded at the band's first show in 1987, opens the box), and experiments ("Beans" sounds like a Ween reject) prove is that Nevermind was, for the band that made them, an unimaginable world away.

There's a reason Nevermind and In Utero are so indelible: They skimmed the cream of Cobain's songbook. Point blank, almost none of the previously unreleased songs on discs two and three of With the Lights Out would have markedly improved those albums. That fact might be more damning if these discs weren't mostly given over to not-too-interesting demos (Cobain apparently had a precariously wobbly four-track), alternate takes ("Polly" and "Rape Me" each appear twice, both negligible compared to the final versions), and great songs in barely-there rehearsal versions. The rotten-sounding debut recording of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" just about defines the phrase "for historians only." Even the takes of "Sappy" (retitled "Verse Chorus Verse" for 1993's No Alternative) and "I Hate Myself and Want to Die" here are bested by the versions that were released on compilations (the latter on The Beavis and Butt-Head Experience).

Which is why the set's DVD comes as a shock: Despite the generally poor audio/visual quality (homemade tapes again), the band's goofiness and giddiness, not to mention the sight of Cobain singing to a wall in bassist Krist Novoselic's parents' rec room, almost make up for the indifference apparent in the rest of the box. It's not a crime to hawk most of this uninteresting collection as forgotten or incipient or unheard genius. But it's just like watching a licensed jeweler sell a fake Rolex.

 
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