As you’ll have noted at some point, particularly if you’ve been checking the blog for a while, the initial reason I kicked it off was I wanted to make use of some leftovers from a book I wrote on the subject of the Nirvana album Incesticide. Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide took me most of last year, most evenings, notes written around daytime activities, scraps of paper from the gym, thoughts in the swimming pool, even a holiday at my parents spent doing extra hours long into the night. In summary though, why did I bother? Why is a half-forgotten compilation from twenty years ago worth another look?
Well, the book is my argument for it, but here’s the overall summary in ten quick n’ easy points:
(1) While rarities collections are increasingly common, in 1992 it was unusual for a band to showcase its abandoned material except posthumously and note the sheer focus on quality; no live cuts, no sketches or half-hearted demos of songs that weren’t finished pieces of work, the time taken to swap out versions that were disliked
(2) Except for the most fanatical Nirvana fans, the vast majority of the songs were unreleased or appeared in a different version from that already visible. It was an extremely generous release both to fans, given the depth of material present, and to friends given the exposure given to The Vaselines
(3) The release was Nirvana’s first major post-fame statement and was Cobain’s first real reaction to his discomfort; he gave it an un-family friendly title and stuck a well-publicised message inside attacking his enemies (the earlier draft having been refused for simply being a screed of personal abuse against certain individuals)
(4) It’s the best opportunity to glimpse Nirvana pre-Bleach/pre-Sub Pop/pre-Grunge. Side B is an EP length 1987 Nirvana showcasing what they sounded like prior to any substantial live experience, without any guidance from a label, simply playing the kind of music they enjoyed at that point; they wanted to channel Melvins, Scratch Acid and Butthole Surfers
(5) The release was the first time Cobain had received so much personal control over an album and he personalised it massively; he supplied the cover art (rather than making suggestions that an art director carried out), he made his first big written address to his fans and selected or discarded possible songs for it depending on his feelings about the songs, their state of completion or whether they were potentially for the next Nirvana release; songs only went onto Incesticide if they were ‘dead’
(6) I would argue, there are games and intentional moves going on with the structure of the entire album; a number of jokes implanted — for example, note how Nevermind Side A finishes with Polly, Incesticide Side A finishes with Polly and In Utero Side A finishes with Dumb which Cobain stated on MTV Unplugged was cribbed from Polly. This also emphasises the unity of Nirvana’s catalogue
(7) A further vendetta played out on Incesticide, outside of the liner notes, was the desire in 1992 to take control of Nirvana’s finances. The Incesticide release featured Downer that Sub Pop had tried to use in 1992 as an incentive for sales of Bleach and Dive, which Sub Pop had used for the same purpose in late 1991. By including those two songs so soon after Sub Pop’s use the opportunity for Sub Pop to profit from Nirvana’s success was reduced
(8) The release was a very specific part of Nirvana’s flight back to the underground post-Nevermind. It sits solidly within a lineage of uglier, less pop releases thus pointing the way to the future of Nirvana and forming part of the reaction against Nevermind’s polished perfection; it was a declaration of the past and of future intent
(9) It’s a vital testament to the way Nirvana abandoned two alternative paths; firstly the new wave orientation of 1987 and then the power-pop/K Records vibe of 1989-1990. Incesticide makes clear that Bleach’s grunge direction wasn’t inevitable, nor was Nevermind’s mainstream/Pixies-influenced rock take either. Incesticide shows what masters Nirvana were of styles prevalent in the alternative rock and indie underground and how they could make all those sounds their own while always moving on — it’s a great statement of Nirvana’s restlessness and how many styles they attempted
(10) It shows how literary Kurt Cobain was; his earliest songs are in fact among his most lyrically complicated and extensive. At one stage it used to be felt that Spank Thru couldn’t possibly have been on Fecal Matter because there’s no way Cobain could be that sophisticated that early; Incesticide shows him to have been a wordy, varied lyricist — one who learnt later to reduce and simplify and to write in pop modes. In terms of non-repeating lines, these were his longest songs
Did I say ten reasons? I could go on. For example, I’d argue that Incesticide is Nirvana’s tribute to Eighties underground music and as such is the best selling examples of a decade of music — the first top-selling true punk album in America. I’d say that With the Lights Out showed that Incesticide really was the cream of Nirvana’s outtakes — that Cobain et al. had cherry-picked the finest in 1992. I’d also point out that given how many songs Cobain wrote in total this is a substantial collection in simple numerical terms. It’s also a demonstration of the more experimental vibes of Nirvana at the same time as showing the contrast between the kinds of material Cobain brought to Nirvana versus the deeper experiments he played with in the late Eighties such as backwards recording, sound collage, voice effects and so forth.
In other words, I wrote about Incesticide because it’s a compilation with a hell of a lot going on. You should check it again and, if I may be so bold, I think my book might help – as it says at the top, order from me directly via NirvanaDarkSlivers@gmail.com or firstname.lastname@example.org