My Ever Long-Winded Thoughts on Kurt Cobain – Montage of Heck: the Home Recordings

Tape Me: Re-Considering Kurt Cobain’s Montage of Heck

I’ll have more to say next week but this is a starting point. I’ll confess I’ve found the snarky remarks of various music sites a true yawn populated with the endlessly repetitious cliches that always emerge when a posthumous recording is released. The simple truth, ultimately, is that there’s no way any post-death recording will live up to the hopes and dreams of fans; will compare to the finest moments in an artist’s back catalogue; will provide comfortable certainty over an artist’s intentions.

I would say two things; I think Brett Morgen has made a very valid audio accompaniment to the film. His thinking is clearly in visual/live action terms – that this is a day hanging out with Kurt Cobain in his apartment in Olympia somewhere between early 1987 and mid-1991 – and it’s that picture in one’s head that matters, not audio fidelity, not song development, not whether anything here should be part of one’s essential Cobain playlist. Most of what a musician or artist does on the road to a classic is inessential – if you just want the ‘finest’, then cool, go buy the greatest hits and skim the main albums then go listen to something else. This release is about an honest portrait of an unpressured day in the company of someone who created for the hell of it, constantly and regularly.

The second thing, however, is that Morgen has quite clearly been left to act as the fall-guy for decisions taken elsewhere. There’s no way this should have been promoted as ’31 tracks’ – even if strictly accurate – given most of the pieces here are interludes and mood-adding sound effects. I’ve never gone with the eternally tedious “oh everything a record label does is wrong!” position but on this occasion there have been clear failings.

The proliferation of approaches led to over-complexity which has disappointed and upset supporters of the release (including myself.) Some cities got to experience the (genuinely great) cinematic experience while many didn’t – OK, I could live with that, it happens. Then the U.S. TV showing meant that region has waited months for the DVD while Europe, on the other hand, got the DVD months ago but will have to pay again to get the extras which will now emerge on the U.S. edition – I’m less chuffed with that but, OK, whatever, I don’t watch extras more than once…

But the soundtrack announcements were abysmal. As recently as this week I received an email from a fan still confused over what music was available on which of the five formats emerging (double LP, cassette, deluxe CD, standard CD, digital download) and whether he could even buy the 31 track release in his country. A failure to simplify the global message, to ensure clarity, has spread confusion and made fans less willing to view the soundtrack kindly. For at least a fortnight I had no idea what I was going to have to do in order to ensure I got all the music. The communication was pathetic.

Similarly, there’s obviously been a kneejerk decision “it’s Kurt Cobain – that means Uber-Treatment!” An automatic decision to load up formats and approaches when there’s no way a collage of this nature requires or deserves it. What Morgen seems to have handed to the record label was a 31 track continuous experience, a sound collage mimicking Cobain’s own penchant for mashing up sounds and material, and what the record label has done is artificially slice it into a ‘non-deluxe’ release which makes no sense, has no artistic validity, has no rational reason for being – then a ‘super-deluxe’ that is hugely redundant, loaded with ephemera, provides nothing extra for its egregious price.

As an addendum; again, I’m not someone who sympathises much with whinging about price. Most music releases cost no more than a few cups of coffee. I believe the creativity of individuals is worth money – just as any individual’s daily labours lead to a wage. Musicians are among the people most likely to end up without medical coverage, without retirement funds, without savings and without stable employment – yet a world without their efforts would be a dreary, sad and feeble one. They deserve support far above ‘electronic tips’ or a demand that their efforts should only exist as a sideline to “a real job.” Musicians do far more than most jobs out there to make life better and more livable – that should be recognised.

…In this case though, the division of the record into three price points – standard, deluxe, super-deluxe – makes absolutely no sense. It’s the only time I’ve agreed with the view that exploitation is occurring in the Nirvana release schedule. It would also have helped if someone said “this is NOT a singer-songwriter album!” before all those who think ‘lo-fi’ means Ed Sheeran got involved.

Brett Morgen’s audio vision should have been allowed to exist as a single artistic vision – released months ago – and appreciated for it’s own whimsical pleasures. I think what’s he’s done is valid, is in line with Cobain’s visions and desires (look at the cut-up nature of Live! Tonight! Sold Out! as well as the ‘Montage of Heck’ collage for a sense of how much Cobain enjoyed splicing things together), is great fun…And I feel Morgen has been let down and left to swing.


One thought on “My Ever Long-Winded Thoughts on Kurt Cobain – Montage of Heck: the Home Recordings”

  1. Plan to write up my full thoughts when I have them, but in the meantime – calling* that bit of wah-wah “Reverb Experiment” was silly (reverberation… maybe?). Also, that’s obviously either Dylan Carlson, or Kurt pretending to be him, which should have been noted.

    Bright Smile has a nice raga thing going – almost sounds like some kid in the ’60s pretending to be the Yardbirds.

    * Unless that was somehow what Kurt wrote on the cassette, but I doubt it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s