Losing Kurt, playing on

BY JEFF LEVEN

I never met Kurt Cobain. I’m guessing that we wouldn’t have liked each other very much, anyway — me the uptight law student who throws on a suit to interview with law firms, votes Republican occasionally, and has an all-too-studied critic’s eye love of rock n’ roll. And Kurt, well, Kurt was Kurt. As pop-icon-martyrs go, Kurt was in some ways embarrassingly mundane. Kurt wasn’t some fragile outerspaceman who turned into a swirling fog of sensual exuberance when you put a guitar in his hands the way Hendrix was, nor was he a self-fascinated, faux poetic, badly drunken, mesmerizing thug like Jim Morrison.

Kurt was, one suspects, something more like the kid in the big public high school who grew his hair long, smoked pot in the bathroom, scribbled drawings, slogans and maybe some angsty poetry in a dog-eared notebook, and toted a perpetually sullen glare as either a weapon or a security blanket. Cobain was blunt and real and had all the hang-ups and fears and mediocracies that the rest of us have. Reading bits and pieces of his now-released journals, the voyeuristic public gets to see fragments of just how human Kurt was — little scraps of poetry of varying quality, the occasional wry humorous observation (the same Kurt who had the simple cheek to wear a “corporate magazines still suck” t-shirt to a Rolling Stone photo shoot), and perhaps most ironically, a desire for privacy and personal space in the midst of a degree of fame he had clearly never before contemplated. And in that respect, the whole thing tends to leave a bad taste in my mouth — a combination of cynical puzzlement at Courtney’s willingness to unleash and sell Kurt’s innermost thoughts and an exasperation with what is sure to be reams of paper spent psychoanalyzing him. No, if anything, the revelation of Kurt’s journals is that the Kurt worth singling out for historical memory is the one found in his music. For all of Kurt’s unexceptional humanity, at the helm of Nirvana he was a bristling avatar — an elegant explosion of angst and rage and righteous outrage at all that is painful, cruel and confusing in a world that got under his skin. Kurt’s music was beautiful, brutal, dense and truly exceptional.

Nirvana’s recent would-be greatest hits collection, Nirvana, presents a modest reminder of the depth and complexity of Kurt’s musical legacy. Take it as granted, of course, that this is precisely the type of thing that will piss off the purists. It is debatable but probably unlikely that Kurt would have sanctioned this type of thing during his career, and regardless most hardcore fans will probably enjoy complaining more about what was left off the disc than enjoying what was actually included. In the end, though, it is a point worth whining about — spanning fourteen tracks, Nirvana still feels strangely elliptical. “Been A Son” and “Sliver” present a tantalizing taste of the band’s grindy pop side, while two samplings from the MTV Unplugged album (“All Apologies,” “The Man Who Sold the World”) serve to document the disarmingly spartan musicianship of what was, in the context of their career, an unusual swan song. In between, the disc is dominated by the four main singles off of Nevermind (the one disc most casual buyers are almost guaranteed to have). Even with the addition of a previously unreleased gem, “You Know You’re Right,” the whole affair feels like a fairly thin attempt to assess a surprisingly deep catalogue. If anything, Nirvana portrays a band with far more evolutionary potential than even their most ardent fans might have recognized. As the fury of Bleach and Nevermind gave way to the haunting complexity of In Utero, Nirvana was in the process of joining the legion of bands whose initial punk roar mellowed into thoughtful artistry of the highest caliber (think, for example, Wire).

While Kurt’s untimely death no doubt contributed to the popular appreciation of the band, Nirvana suggests that they had plenty more to accomplish had he survived. Aside from developing as a songwriter, Kurt’s messages were getting bolder (witness the controversial “Rape Me”) and his earnestness was unquestionable. One suspects that rather than making thinly-disguised biopics (I’m talking to you, Mathers) or appointing himself spokesperson for the Third World (Bono et al.), Cobain would have continued to push the envelope of expression and caustic self-searching. Nor was the whole thing all about Kurt — stacked in a row, Nirvana’s prominent singles testify to the oft-neglected primacy of Krist Novoselic’s basslines, and while Grohl is most noticeable in the punch of the Steve Albini-produced later material, the band as a whole sounds much tighter in retrospect than they did along the way. Simply put, they weren’t just loud, they weren’t just fashionable, they were really, amazingly good. Most people didn’t need a one-disc compilation to remind them that Nirvana was a great band, though. What this collection ultimately proves is that it is their entire catalogue that is essential.

Left with a legacy such as this, it was undoubtedly hard for the rest of Nirvana to know just how to pick up the pieces. Novoselic has generally shirked the mainstream musical limelight, focusing instead on political efforts (including the anti-WTO protest concert) and an experimental fusion of styles in the short-lived band Sweet 75. Grohl, on the other hand, dove straight back into it, from behind the drum-kit to front the Foo Fighters, in some ways the perfect rejoinder to those who would hound him with his oh-so-seminal past. Poppy, joyful, humorous, smooth and gleefully straightforward, the Foos have ascended to the status of one of rock’s most consistently agreeable acts, blending richly textured epics like “Everlong” with bubblegum delights like “Big Me.” If Nirvana was big and gritty and challenging, the Foos are quaint, familiar, and embraceable.

The Foo Fighters’ fourth and newest album, One by One, serves primarily to consolidate what they’ve done thus far by mining the crunchier side of their pop sensibilities while retaining the increasing atmospheric gravity that has developed over their last two albums.

Grohl, for his part, seems a bit charged up by his recent foray with the Queens of the Stone Age: One by One’s first three songs lurch forward in pure QOTSA fashion before settling back into a classic rock vein on “Times Like These.” Speaking of Queen(s) and classic rock, perhaps one of the album’s more puzzling moments is the appearance of former Queen guitarist Brian May on “Tired” — rather than bust out with a trademark searing quintuple-tracked solo, May seems content to smolder strangely in the background in synthesizer-like fashion now and then. Things open up a bit on the catchy big sky number “Halo,” the riffy “Overdrive,” and what is probably instrumentally the album’s strongest number “Burn Away,” but by the time the dense closer “Come Back” (which again smacks of QOTSA) comes around the whole affair starts to feel a bit flat. For the first time in four albums, the Foo Fighters seem unable to come up with a spectacular hook on any song in particular. One by One instead showcases the Foos’ technical talent while neglecting some of their atmospheric virtues — Grohl’s guitar is clearly accomplished (leaps and bounds more fluid than when he started) and drummer Taylor Hawkins’ busy stickwork is inspiring as ever, but it’s just not as much fun as a Foo Fighers album should be. Whether One by One’s comparatively stiff personality demotes the Foos on the charts remains to be seen,
but either way it manages to mark a career plateau of a band whose greatest challenge from this day forward will be to either chart new terrain or recapture the thrill of their well-loved formula.

But what is formula, anyway? History is starting to demonstrate, I think, that the “Seattle” or “grunge” sound supposedly mapped out by Nirvana was itself never the formula everyone wanted it to be. Indeed, perhaps the only band more constrained by the labels and expectations of the “grunge” movement than Nirvana was Pearl Jam. While rather surprisingly and viciously bashed in Kurt’s journals, presumably because of their relative lack of punky street cred (not helped by Vedder’s occasional self-important posturing), Pearl Jam has always been a retro-rock band in a grunge band’s clothing, owing more to Hendrix, the Stones, the Who and ’70s arena rock than the Melvins or Black Flag.

After gradually thwarting Top 40 expectations with such dense albums as No Code and Yield, Pearl Jam has emerged in the twenty-first century as a jam band of the highest order, releasing no less than 72 live recordings from their European and American tours in 2000 and 2001. Boasting classic rock covers, constantly retooled songs, and in their best moments, a riveting intensity they did much to transform their gestalt from supposed Gen-X spokesmen to road warrior tunesmiths.

Pearl Jam’s new and much-anticipated album, Riot Act, seems to complete the transition. More than anything else in their catalogue, Riot Act sounds like a collection of songs designed as much for live interpretation later as they are for the album itself. Plangent guitar moments on songs like “Love Boat Captain,” and “Cropduster” promise extended workouts in some open air amphitheater, while the quirky Eastern-flavored opener “Can’t Keep” begs for nightly reinvention.

The album occasionally seems a bit hesitant in its energy — McCready’s solos on the Ament-penned “Ghost” have the setup to shred just as hard as, say, “State of Love and Trust” (a gem from the Singles soundtrack) but somehow he sounds as if he’s pulling up just a little short. It’s the rehearsal quality of Riot Act that makes it both intriguing and confounding. While in one moment the album glows with the humble beauty of the sparse “Thumbing My Way,” the leaden and almost smothered funk of “You Are,” counterpoints it with inconsistency. Later on, the droning, haunting “Arc” comes out of nowhere, setting up the rootsy, slowly-unfolding guitar buildup on “All or None.” Part of this phenomenon can undoubtedly be attributed to the collaborative nature of the project — more than any of their earlier albums, Riot Act features songs written by Ament, Cameron and Gossard in addition to those penned by Vedder, and throughout it they manage to prevent the type of authorial typecasting that often happens in such situations. While, yes, Vedder tends to write some of the slow ones, his jangly “Green Disease” has every bit as much drive as Ament’s bluesy “1/2 Full.” Lyrically, Cameron’s work is among the most arresting as he imbues the rocker “Wanted to Get Right” with a simple honesty that even Vedder doesn’t completely capture with his warbly vocals.

Lyrically, the only real flop is the anti-George W. Bush tirade, “Bushleaguer,” that rides the obvious wordplay on the Prez’s baseball past with more smug pride than it probably deserves — a weak effort when compared with Neil Young’s far more gripping attack on Bush’s father in “Rockin’ In the Free World,” or even Rage’s election rant in “Guerrilla Radio.” Stuck in the middle of an abstract and often deeply personal album, it’s an odd number indeed, and emblematic of the ups and downs of the album as a whole.

While in the end it’s unclear what exactly Pearl Jam was going for on Riot Act, they manage to come up with something interesting. While it may lack the fire of Ten or the pure craftsmanship of Vs., it remains an interesting collection of songs and a worthwhile addition to the catalog. Ranging from gorgeous to curious, the 15 performances here show just how much terrain Pearl Jam can cover, and how well they generally, if haphazardly, pull it off. The true promise of the songs it contains, however, will be best harnessed when Pearl Jam takes this Riot Act on the road.

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