I was asked the other day “Nick, is Incesticide your favourite Nirvana album?”
It was an easy one to answer, “no way. In Utero’s the favourite by a mile. But I think Incesticide is important.” In the sample chapter released tomorrow I’ll delve into it in more detail but in essence, Incesticide served three crucial purposes; firstly, as described in the blog post “Kurt Cobain Gives a Christmas Present” it was Kurt kicking back at commercial compromise; secondly, it was part of the reemphasis on Nirvana’s noisy punk-focused side after the ‘blip’ of Nevermind; thirdly, it was Nirvana’s attempt to indicate the abandoned paths on their road to fame — showing fans that there had been other sounds explored not just a march to victory.
The album essentially cuts Nevermind out of the picture and draws a straight line from Nirvana’s early era directly to the raucous material that emerged in 1992-1993 — D7, Return of the Rat, Curmudgeon, Oh the Guilt — and ultimately to In Utero and its raw sound. It’s impressive in a way, using past work to show where future work was going to go. Incesticide helped indicate the band’s immediate direction.
The record was utterly unfriendly to corporate pay-masters, to family-friendly record chains and, ultimately, to fair-weather pop fans. This wasn’t just a case of the music though, in itself, the music was a distillation of several key sounds of the Eighties alternative underground — Incesticide should be considered as the most-successful product of that scene. The front cover, the title, the liner notes, the absence of a video until well into 1993 (and hardly a radio-friendly video at that given the trashy punk vibe and aggressive treatment), the refusal to talk to the press. While described as a deliberate attempt not to shift focus from Nevermind there’s little more the band could have done to show an absence of commercial desire and a desire to cause a bit of offence along the way.
Side B of the album is essentially an EP-length release of what Nirvana sounded like before they became a grunge band. These are songs written 1985-late 1987 by all accounts and show a far more articulate lyrical style alongside a varied range of vocal and musical styles, plus a willingness to experiment with structure; for example with Aero Zeppelin commencing with almost two wordless minutes of music, very rare for a Nirvana song. Side A, by contrast, picks up the story in the aftermath of their most ‘Seattle sound’ era with the band genuinely emulating the demo-like feel of their then power-pop and lo-fi heroes. The story of Nirvana is often seen as a move straight from Bleach and grunge to Nevermind and pop-rock. Incesticide displays the intervening spell when the band were trying on a sound that, if they’d persisted with it, would have won them another indie deal, but wouldn’t have propelled them far as major label rock.
The focus on the three studio albums, and on the studio albums as discreet entities, has made it harder to see how unified Kurt Cobain’s lyrical themes were. Looked at as a single oeuvre it’s possible to see themes, ideas and images reiterated year-after-year from the start to end of his career. Incesticide is as much a part of this discussion as any of the albums and helps show the divisions and unities in the rest of the catalog. For a start, it makes it clear that Incesticide was Kurt Cobain’s response to fame (in form, art, words) while In Utero was only a response to the assaults on his family in late 1992.
Plus, the final argument for Incesticide is simply numbers; it gathers songs from a quarter of Nirvana’s radio sessions (two of eight); from seven of ten pre-Nevermind studio sessions; it includes a song first appearing on Kurt Cobain’s second ever demo recording; it captures Nirvana’s first studio session; it features four of their six drummers; it contains three of only eight cover songs Nirvana released officially prior to April 1994; four of its fifteen tracks were alternatives to versions already released; and it contained songs from each year of Nirvana’s development from the band’s formation to 1991. That’s quite a haul.
Incesticide, far more than the fragmented With the Lights Out or any other Nirvana archive project since, was the crème de la crème, the finest outtakes Nirvana had in the cupboard. The sheer quality of the release has been sorely underestimated when it can be seen, from twenty years distance, that the MTV Unplugged performance and You Know You’re Right are the only Nirvana outtakes that run Incesticide close.