Much of the success of the compact disc following its launch in 1982 came from the ability of record labels to market the ‘upgraded’ format to consumers who already had the original albums on vinyl or cassette. Re-selling back catalogue became a new income stream throughout the 80s and 90s, to the extent that some argued new artists were neglected as a result. And while the demand was eventually largely satiated, labels sought to continue the exploitation of their archives with special editions, discs of rarities and previously unreleased material.
The recent release of Bob Dylan’s The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12, an 18 disc collection of his studio time during those two years is some kind of high water mark. Although not the largest single set ever released, it surely reaches the limit of what the industry believes the market will accommodate. It’s in this musical rear view mirror that Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings emerges. A soundtrack (of sorts) to Brett Morgen’s well-received Kurt Cobain documentary from earlier this year, it’s less a traditional album than a quasi-art project in itself, designed to reflect Morgen’s take on Cobain the multi-media artist, and less the tortured grunge idol.
With that in mind – and expectations suitably lowered – the sonic scraps and doodles give a behind-the-scenes insight into Cobain’s working practices rather than being the oft rumoured ‘Kurt Cobain solo album’. While there are a handful of rough demos for future Nirvana tracks – ‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle’, ‘Been A Son’ and curtailed version of Bleach’s ‘Scoff’ – many of the 31 tracks on the ‘deluxe’ edition see Cobain absent-mindedly pick his way around some chords, mumbling half-formed melodies or mess around with his 4-track recorder for skits, sketches and spoken word material. A few elements, like the chorus to ‘Desire’, the lullaby-esque ‘Letter To Frances, might well have gone on to be Nirvana classics; an extended medley of ‘Do Re Mi’ has him finding a melody, drifting away and refinding it again. It’s one of a few ‘shivers down the spine’ moments that proves genius doesn’t just happen, it needs some graft too.
In some respects, Morgen has not gone far enough: given the cut and paste nature of the tape experiment from which the project takes its name, and the slim, sketchy nature of the material herein, it might have been a more satisfying listening experience to compile an extended collage akin to The Beatles’ Love. Those expecting that solo Cobain album will be severely tested by Montage Of Heck; for Nirvana obsessives and scholars, hearing hints of melodies and chord shapes that would go on form the basis of familiar tunes is a minor treat, although it’s hard to shake the notion the whole project would have sat better as an extra alongside the film, rather than a standalone release – with all the attendant extra scrutiny that brings.
There’s an irony at play here, too. Frustrated at how Cobain’s back catalogue has been handled by his label, fans spent much of the Autumn anonymously excavating his archive – his complete ‘Fecal Matter’ tape, a rehearsal from before Nirvana settled on their name, home demos, outtakes from the Nevermind sessions inexplicably passed over for the official anniversary release – dozens of fresh and exciting tracks that give lie to the notion that the well has run dry. Material that, properly curated, could have been sold commercially and would have enhanced, not detracted, from Cobain’s legacy but has instead been set free, for free. As the saying goes – you snooze, you lose big record company.
The disquiet in some quarters about the continued raking over of Cobain’s legacy is simply an unease with our fascination with fame, and a quiet acknowledgement of the void his absence still provokes. Had the industry spent the twenty-one years since his passing finding and developing new Nirvana’s, new rock stars, we might be less interested. What those leaks proved is that a Kurt Cobain solo album, or at least a few more Nirvana rarities collections (if not a multi-disc box) might yet still be viable – unless fans get there first, of course.