That Voice…The Cobain Voice…

Apologies, was a public holiday in UK yesterday and I was at my grandfather’s… Now! Awful lot written about the Cobain roar, his particular skill for being able to hold a single note while screaming, to be able to twist a scream up, down, wherever he wished it — that’s a genuine technical ability on display, not just an unpractised gut talent. And that’s what has made the various vocal-only/acapella versions of Nirvana’s songs so interested. None have been officially released (as far as I know) and I can’t imagine they ever will be although voice only versions of hip hop albums are not an uncommon phenomenon given the desire of remix artists to get working with individual voices. Given the rather unlovely nature of a hip hop vocal, those releases are usually best for the appreciation of lyrics, for the dexterity with which an individual plays with syllables and their control over speed and breathing.

In the case of Kurt Cobain’s voice, isolated from the instruments, there’s a wide range of material to choose from stretching from early efforts — the very gruff, paint-stripping growl on Negative Creep or thick tone of Blew — to the frailty that has crept in on a song like Very Ape or All Apologies. Of course I’m sure that what we’re hearing is not necessarily the development of a voice but deliberate decisions regarding what to emphasise or discard — we’re hearing control, an expanding and experienced talent.

One major contrast is being able to hear so clearly the work done to the vocals on Nevermind. The slight echo on a track like Drain You softens the edges; check the almost syrupy effect added to In Bloom alongside the more extreme doubling of Kurt’s voice on the chorus; the demo like quality of Something in the Way is a welcome release with the visibility of each vocal tic and slur now starkly present. There are plenty of sources and certainly their availability is well-known across the fan community:

The additional touches aren’t as visible on the other albums, they’re there, of course, but the nakedness of the voice is plainer. This is my particular favourite. The gulf between the downbeat verses, the ability to let the voice break over a note — I’m very sure it’s deliberate, he did it so perfectly during Where Did You Sleep Last Night from MTV Unplugged — the building snarl of the bridge then the sustained chorus…And yes, there’s plenty of doubling going on at the end there but still…What a song and what a voice.

MV (*cough*) is also available in this form showing him stretching his voice from the initial croak to the dredged up choruses…Another late era experiment with the voice.


5 thoughts on “That Voice…The Cobain Voice…”

  1. ^^^
    amazing recorded vocal track . only minimal use of reverb.
    considering it was on a cheaply recorded relatively lo-fi album at $600
    and Kurt was what 21 at the time.

    that scream at 1:43 is ridiculous. goosebump stuff.

    That is what seperated Nirvana from many other similar bands of the time – Kurts voice – which on record just sounded brilliant.

  2. Warning : long post


    yeh Kurt did change his voice quite a bit on some songs on recordings.
    Even early on from Beeswax or Hairpsray Queen to About A Girl. He did mess about with his voice quite a bit. Also take Kurts voice on the Fecal Matter stuff – it is unrecognisable to what became later known for.

    He also did change his voice live few times especially – and during some of 1992 .Take Reading 92 for instance he is actually singing in different way than often did and IMO not in a great way.

    can remember reading in one of the books (cant rmeber which) that he was advised at one point to give up smoking and learn how to sing ‘properly’ (which he never did) or learn to sing differently becuase he was basically wrecking his own vocal chords and throat in the way he was singing. Always thought the Reading 92 show was a reserved vocal performance for most part tho always thought that might have been down to the occasion or other vices but you can hear in few shows of that year of Cobain singing differently than had beforehand.

    Thing about Kurt like many he wasn’t a trained singer at all but actually could sing in tune and scream in tune.Have to agree with above comment that it was a tool Nirvana had that some much better bands (musical playing wise) didn’t actually have in the DIY scene for most part of late 80s. i’m talking long before the cliche grunge Vedder voice became common. Talking about most punk bands of the 80s.Not many bands had ppl who could sing with in reasonable tune. They either shouted or wailed. Not that theres anything wrong with that bit just making a vague distinction.

    Kurts voice however on Bleach for instance sounded great.
    That acapella of School above re-instates just how ridiculous yet powerful a young Cobain sounded.

    Endino said first thing that struck him about recording Nirvana was that Kurt had a pretty cool sounding voice. He said something about Kurt could sing fairly well naturally and could also scream in a way that actually didn’t sound embarrasing.
    That School acapella is scarily good and a good example.

    ‘Do Re Mi’ the last thing Kurt recorded (that we know of) which was in falsetto . The only song im aware of that he sang that way . I do wonder if that was him just experimenting with his voice again for that song alone or was an actual indication he might have ended up deliberately changing his singing voice for possible other songs – like Bob Dylan for instance did when deliberately changed his voice.

    Kurts voice on Nevermind to me always sounded more ‘English’ in many ways than the latter stuff. I do think Butch Vig overdid Kurts vocals on Nevermind with reverb , overdubs or maybe that was Andy Wallace.

    The In Utero vocals – albeit Scott Litt was bought in to remix Heart Shaped Box , All Apologies for most part sound lot better imo.

    Its also kinda noticable how Kurt did the harmonies himself on In Utero himself rather than have Dave Grohl chirp in. I get the sense that was more than accidental ?

    Kurt had an unusual voice. Live didn’t always sound the greatest but on recordings had bit of geuine gold dust going on.

    Voice was clearly effected by circumstances as well at times – take the Unplugged you can actually clearly hear some nervousness in his voice in first few songs and actually oversings at points in About A Girl and Come As You Are but as the show goes on notably sounds more relaxed.

    personally i think his best singing voice when was singing in a subdued way like on Something In The Way , the Meat Puppets Oh Me or the verses of In Bloom than screaming .

    Though either way think Kurt had a great voice . Shame its been parodied by some awful bands since though. An unusual voice that was very melodic and somehow very powerful.
    like Cobain itself it sounded like a beaten up doll.

    Just like Nirvana as a band itself there as a ying / yang sort of thing going on in Cobains vocals.
    Ugly / pretty , loud / quiet ,masculine / feminine.

    There was always good tension in Cobains voice in recorded format that frankly not many have.

    Just take the Foo Fighters first album for instance – i always cant help but think how much better it would be if had Kurt singing than Dave Grohl.

    1. Comrade, this is a very enjoyable and insightful bit of writing you’ve added – you have a voice all your own and its worth hearing! Thank you for sharing!

      In Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide I devoted a whole chapter to experimentation. A large part of that was speaking about how he went from testing voices on Fecal Matter, to a still diverse range on January 23, 1988 before gradually settling on a style of his own.

      Your point that within that ‘style’ he was learning control and to use his voice just right…A good point.

  3. I just want to say that finding this post has been the most gratifying experience I’ve had in a while. Been thinking about Cobain a lot after watching Montage of Heck recently, and this time extensively about his VOICE. You described what I’ve been unable to articulate about it SO PERFECTLY!! Thank you! And now I’m inspired to share my own thoughts:

    I think my favourite album in terms of what he’s able to achieve with his voice is Incestide, and that may be because I like to think that at that time he was still having fun with exploring what he can do with his voice after already proving that he can primal scream better than most on Bleach. Big Long Now has always been a favourite – with that nearly shrill wail after those dreamy/drugged-out verses, but without the “gruff, paint-stripping growl” as you mentioned, which seems to be his default. Many other songs like Mexican Seafood et al. you can really get a sense that he was playing around with pitch, tempo, and pausing to match the sentiment of the lyrics and the melody itself PERFECTLY. Like that song kind of makes me feel sick, which was obviously intended. I think Sliver would be impossible to be covered by anyone else; try to find someone that can make a song about being a bratty kid sound all at once sarcastic and sincere, instilling child-like lyrics with the enraged intensity that he’s used to in almost every other song, and choosing the vulnerable phrase “Woke up in my mothers arms” to wail out the longest and hardest.

    I think for In Utero, he was changing his overall style from hardcore grunge to a more acoustic sad-core a’la the Unplugged performance, and songs All Apologies and Heart-Shaped Box, and as we later saw Do Re Mi. He was about to collaborate with Micheal Stipe for chrissakes. He seemed to realize the limitations of his genre and his voice really seemed to adapt readily. That voice alone is what makes his simple demos and covers so coveted still, he can make a simple song haunt you for weeks.

    I actually dislike many of his later performances, I feel like I can tell that he was lacking the passion to be adventurous with his vocal performances. Compare the recorded and later live versions of Serve the Servants and Heart-Shaped Box. Live, they were delivered warbly and husky which kind of reminds me of those shallow parody bands like Puddle of Mudd and Nickleback.

    Ending this with what I think is the best version of School: the way he extends his voice the second time he repeats “no recess” during the chorus… I still remember watching that for the first time as a teenager and promptly having to chain smoke afterwards because it gave me such intense goosebumps.

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