I’d like to thank Mitchell for popping up and asking me to speculate on Nirvana’s next direction in light of the material shared on ‘Montage of Heck’ – if I did the math I suspect we’ve now seen more of Nirvana’s leftovers than we did original songs while the band was actually a living entity. Do they, plus other rumours tell us anything about what ‘the next Nirvana album’ may have been?
Ultimately, after all this time, the answer is still “we know nothing.” While preparing ‘Cobain on Cobain’ I was delighted to be permitted access to the full 40TV video footage of Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl being interviewed (in two different settings) while in Portugal in February 1994. It’s a fun piece, they’re enjoying themselves, then there’s a moment where they look sheepish, where the high spirits fall away:
Interviewer: I’ve heard that you’re going to release another album in several months. How will it be deeper or more poppy than this one?
DG: I don’t know. We’re still trying to figure it out. We’re just experimenting. Might be really weird.
Interviewer: But have you already composed songs or not yet?
DG: A few.
KN: Few, yeah.
DG: Just a couple. We’re still — we don’t know what we’re going to do yet either. It’s kind of — it’s up in the air right now. Still a mystery. To us.
They move on swiftly to talking about Grohl’s work with the Backbeat band. They’ve no desire to halt the cavalcade, but this is a huge contrast with late 1991 when Nirvana were all confidently claiming that they had the next album plotted out and ready to release in ’92. This time ‘a few’ becomes ‘a couple’. They have no plan at all for a new album – not even a vibe they’re thinking of following. In Sandrine Maugy’s interview with Dave Grohl a few days later in Paris, they talk about everything but the idea of new music from Nirvana isn’t even mentioned. There’s nothing here.
The more one looks, the more things recede into fuzziness. Michael Stipe is clear that he invited Cobain to join him and R.E.M. in March 1994 simply because he was scared about Cobain’s state of mind – it wasn’t a plan for a collaboration, it was a musical intervention. The idea that Stipe was about to halt R.E.M.’s own album recording plans for ‘Monster’ in order to record a fully-fledged body of work with Cobain is simply unreal. R.E.M. were in studio in February, booked in again for early April – there’s no time.
Similarly, the ‘Lollapalooza Tour EP’ idea is supposedly the next Nirvana product meant to emerge after the ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ single – again, however, there’s nothing except an ‘idea’ for a release, no substance at all. Interviewing members of Geffen management for the ‘I Found My Friends’ book they were clear there was nothing they recall even discussing at the time. The label’s hottest property’s supposed new release wasn’t worth remembering because it never existed.
What about ‘You Know You’re Right’ though? It’s a demo, a good one, but still a demo. There’s obvious work still to be done to create a credibly releasable song. Its status comes posthumously not because it was album-ready/release-ready at the time. Pat Smear has suggested he was told he could add parts to it but as nothing happened even he is unwilling to confirm that the song was deemed complete. It is true that on ‘Nevermind’ and on ‘Bleach’ Nirvana used older recordings from previous sessions (‘Polly’, ‘Floyd the Barber’, ‘Paper Cuts’ – ‘Downer’ was a later bonus) but it seems that was a decision taken during album sessions, not a deliberate plan. It makes it unlikely ‘You Know You’re Right’ was something being placed in the can ready for later.
And ‘Do Re Mi’ suffers from the shadow cast by MTV Unplugged. Though a titanic performance, that session was a contractually obligated TV format Nirvana was required to adhere to if they wished to perform. It therefore says nothing about Nirvana’s own intentions though they were flirting with acoustic segments for a time in 1993. Nirvana’s albums are over 90% electric all the way – the idea of a new singer-songwriter direction, though alluring and possible, isn’t substantiated by any evidence. ‘Do Re Mi’ itself was unlikely to remain in its unadorned bedroom demo form – when Cobain strains for a note it sounds more like the technique he uses on other home demos to indicate where he’d be adding a scream to the final amplified version.
People point back to Cobain leftovers to claim the band could have cobbled together a complete work, forgetting Cobain’s strong pride in his work, his deep consideration of the final form and selection for each album. ‘Old Age’ was long abandoned – a gift to his wife so no longer even a Nirvana song. With ‘Talk to Me’ there’s, so far, no evidence supporting rumours it was played in ’94 though there is clear evidence that it was so uninteresting to Cobain and the band that in the numerous sessions from spring 1992 onward, all those concerts too, they didn’t even attempt it. ‘Opinion’ and the original ‘Verse Chorus Verse’ had gone missing years earlier too. The use of 1990-1991 songs for early 1993’s ‘In Utero’ is well testified; but is poor evidence for other resurrections.
There are other places to look for potential songs, of course, the https://nirvana-legacy.com/category/unreleased-n-posthumous-nirvana/ thread on here is loaded with them. The unknown rehearsal instrumental added to the In Utero deluxe was so dashed off no one involved had even remembered it existed. Then there’s the ‘unknown’ song that gets played twice in late 1993 and at the January 1994 session – now that, at least, is a credible new Nirvana song but it’s still only a minute-and-a-half shred. Alongside ‘You Know You’re Right’, however, it certainly lays to rest the idea that Cobain was abandoning the effects pedals and volume. Heck, Nirvana didn’t even play MTV Unplugged, unplugged.
One could look to his various home demos with Courtney Love to tease out future works:
Except nothing seen so far has been a truly credible new song – they’re whimsical games. There’s little to see so far though I look forward to the eventual archive release.
Others hold out great faith for Cobain giving up being the guiding force in Nirvana and letting Dave Grohl shoehorn some songs in – to be fair, at least he had the material:
Again though, I just don’t see it. This was Cobain’s fiefdom – he might take the odd idea, try the odd b-side, but handing over a percentage of an album to his drummer? This wasn’t a democracy.
On the bright side though, Nirvana were quick, disciplined workers in studio – there’s no reason to claim they weren’t capable of jamming together a bunch of songs over the course of 1994-1995 in the way that ‘MV’, ‘Gallons’, ‘The Other’, ‘I Hate Myself’, ‘Milk It’, ‘Serve the Servants’ and so forth don’t seem to have existed until late 1992. These were talented and experienced musicians.
…But the question “what do the demos currently available show?” The answer is they show Cobain had one unknown song he was tinkering with; he had ‘You Know You’re Right’; he had ‘Do Re Mi’. Three datapoints isn’t enough to draw any kind of pattern. The ‘Path to an Album’ posts (https://nirvana-legacy.com/?s=path+to+an+album) suffered from that same point – that the past isn’t a perfect guide to the future. It’s speculation.
And it’ll always be speculation, which is kinda fun isn’t it?