Merry Christmas! The Evolution of Kurt Cobain’s Lyrics

In the literary world, it’s normal that a sophisticated writer’s output is dissected to indicate the structural, time-specific and/or constant features underpinning what they do. The world of popular music, however, often falls prey to anti-intellectualism: a common kneejerk reaction claiming that any deeper consideration either neuters the emotive force of music (answer: no, it doesn’t) is inappropriate to the form (answer: no, it isn’t) or is purely imaginary unless confirmed by an artist’s own statements (answer: entire industries are built on helping people understand themselves better – why should a zone as full of flakes, oddballs and exceptional cases as music is be the sole arena of human life where people are all-knowing with regard to their actions?) It’s a bizarre reaction in many ways: to be unable to accept music on a physical, emotional and intellectual level whether at separate times and locations, or intermingled.

In the case of Cobain, the 500 posts created from November 2012 to December 2016; over a million words; hundreds of tables/charts/graphics; indicate I feel there’s more to his work than just re-treading soap opera style biographical detail. The starkest example I can offer is the way in which is song-writing notably changes between 1986 and 1994. As a Christmas post I decided to enjoy showing why I think Cobain is such a good writer and sustains deeper assessment.

Think of any singer you wish: compare Beck to Axl Rose; compare Nineties Wu Tang Clan to the hashtag disorientation of mid-2000s Lil Wayne; whatever you wish. Every performer of words has a voice. There are a range of options: first person, third person, the story, interior monologues, direct address to an unknown audience, emotional sensation versus external reportage…Regardless of whether the individual concerned is a seasoned professional who readily and methodically selects different voices at different times, or a from-the-gut lyricist working on pure instinct rather than any formulated conception of their art, lyrics require a mode regardless of thought or forethought.

Cobain is an excellent subject to study in this regard: a concise selection of song lyrics to consider – well under one hundred – showing development across a tight eight year span. Some songs recorded for the Fecal Matter demo at Easter 1986 may have been around a long while but without further evidence it’s pure conjecture. In my opinion, given how fast Cobain wrote, used and discarded songs 1986-1990 I doubt he was re-using leftovers from his early-to-mid teens. I’m ignoring the material on Montage of Heck simply because there’s no data about when/where it was created and most of it didn’t come even close to any sense of complete form. Feel free to consider it in light of this discussion.

In essence, there are three clearly distinguishable threads to Cobain’s lyric writing – and they change significantly in terms of their presence and importance within his portfolio.

The first, is the ‘story’ – defined as a narrative scene/experience played out across an entire song. This approach takes a lot of work: essentially it means writing a short story, in a relatively limited number of words, while making it work as a vocal piece. ‘Paper Cuts’ from the Bleach album is a great example: “When I’m feeling tired / she pushed food through the door / and I crawl toward the crack of light / sometimes I can’t find my way / newspapers spread around / soaking all that they can / a cleaning is due again / a good hosing down.” The first evidence of Cobain using this mode of writing comes on Fecal Matter in 1988 with the track ‘Insurance’ (a court scene) and it’s very understandable why it never becomes a dominant component of his writing – it’s difficult and time-consuming! The next example is ready a year later by the time of Nirvana’s first show: ‘Mexican Seafood’, a slightly feverish sequence in which he winds up focusing on the state of the bathroom floor and the toilet bowl (I felt this song more deeply after a food poisoning episode.) 1987 is the big year for story songs: Cobain has the time and freedom to work on them so by the January 1988 studio session at Reciprocal he’s worked up ‘Floyd The Barber’ and ‘Paper Cuts’ with ‘Polly’ likely already in hand given the song is based on a 1987 news story.

This song form dies entirely. The final two examples are written in May-July of 1990 (‘Sliver’) and the autumn of that year (‘Something in the Way’.) Story songs, in summary, make up 6 of the 68 songs with lyrics released during Nirvana’s lifetime or on the Greatest Hits/With The Lights Out packages in 2002-2004. One is based on a news story (‘Polly’), one on an incident that happened to a local kid (‘Paper Cuts’), one is a fictitious grotesque based on a TV show (‘Floyd The Barber’), three are embellished autobiography (‘Mexican Seafood’, ‘Sliver’, ‘Something in the Way’.) The way in which, between 1988 and1990, he moves toward autobiography is reinforced by other trends in his writing.

The second form is even more prominent in Cobain early work: the ‘character sketch’. This differs from the story song in being a recitation of an individual’s static being, character or circumstance. The Fecal Matter demo is a point of origin in two respects: firstly, Cobain is still finding his own voice so it’s significant how often he speaks ‘as other people’ on the record – note the bizarre put-on voices throughout the demo (an affectation still prominent in the unusual voices on the January 1988 songs later seen on Incesticide.) Secondly, this seeking out of identities is also lyrical: ‘Laminated Effect’ is the only time Cobain sketches named characters (Johnny and Lucy respectively), while ‘Buffy’s Pregnant’ marries his vocal impersonations to stereotypical dialogue of the types of individual he’s representing. ‘Mrs. Butterworth’, in which he hashes out a would-be homemade folk-art entrepreneur’s future plans, continues this lyrical approach in which he visibly speaks ‘as’ another person. He gives up on vocal impersonations very swiftly and very soon it becomes less obvious he’s speaking as a character or autobiographically.

The b-side to Nirvana’s first single, ‘Big Cheese’, had started life as a tale of management at a fast food joint (see the early version played live in Spring 1988) then evolved into a comment on the management at Sub Pop; there’d also been ‘Hairspray Queen’ and ‘If You Must’ (the latter a quintessential ‘writing’ song) recorded that January; while ‘Sappy’ was demo’ed in 1988. The peak for the character sketch though was its dominance on Bleach which contained ‘About A Girl’, ‘School’, ‘Negative Creep’, ‘Scoff’, ‘Swap Meet’ and ‘Mr Moustache’. A division was emerging within this song form quick sketches of characters he observed around him – like the redneck or the couple making a living at garage/car-boot sales – or songs based around his own life and mood (i.e., pressures from management, pressures from girlfriend, his own negativity.)

Things had visibly changed by the time of Nevermind: just as the story song had dwindled to a single song (‘Something in the Way’), there were only two character sketches (‘Lithium’ and ‘Drain You’) both of which could be read as autobiographical.  That’s not to say, however, that Cobain hadn’t persisted with this mode of writing. ‘Stain’, ‘Been a Son’ and ‘Even in his Youth’ were all written in a flurry around summer-autumn 1989; then, in 1990, Cobain also created ‘Dumb’, ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ and ‘Oh The Guilt’ – early versions of ‘Rape Me’ were also far more extensive than what would ultimately emerge in 1993.

I’ve said it a lot of times, of course, that so few Cobain compositions are written after Nevermind that it’s hard to draw big conclusions but – by the end of his life, as far as we can see, the only additions to this form were ‘Curmudgeon’ (written sometime in 1991), then ‘Very Ape’ and ‘Scentless Apprentice.’ A form that had taken up over half of Nirvana’s first album remained as a full four songs on Nirvana’s final album, but made up only two of the dozen compositions he’s known to have written in the last two-and-a-half years of his life. Still, it’s a significant batch of Cobain’s productivity: 23 of the 68 songs taken into account in this assessment.

The curious part, however, is seeing the rise of the third song form Cobain used. Bleach was made up of one cover song, two story songs leftover from the January 1988 session, six character sketches, then just two songs in the mode for which Cobain would become best known and that would dominate his later writing. ‘Blew’ and ‘Sifting’ are forged from lines that sound good together, related words, brief images, lines addressed to an unknown audience – there’s no central narrative and no singular character here. I refer to these as the ‘abstract address’: detached images, opinions, feelings combined into songs (hence why looking for a single ‘meaning’ for this type of song has always been so silly.)

‘Downer’ s the nearest Fecal Matter came to this though there was a central theme at play. Note, by the way, that Downer starts with an anonymous narration then breaks into the first person. Cobain would do the same thing on Spank Thru, Mexican Seafood, Big Long Now, Dive, Smells Like Teen Spirit, Drain You, Scentless Apprentice and Radio Friendly Unit Shifter – opening lines in one mode, the rest in another. Oddly ‘Downer’, ‘Aero Zeppelin’ and ‘Sifting’ would be the last songs Cobain wrote that are entirely anonymous with no ‘I’, ‘he’, ‘she’ involved. Just another small evolution in his style.

‘Spank Thru’ was the next form in this mode, followed in early 1988 by ‘Blew’ and ‘Sifting’ which each evolved new lines and different parts across 1988. Increasingly this is how Cobain would come to write: lines taken from different journals, or scribbled out relatively close to the time of recording, tagged onto core lines and ideas he’d kept or mused on for a while, or words that stayed in his mind. If you look at something like ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ideas barely linger longer than a couple of lines. Elsewhere, try ‘In Bloom’ with its chorus refrain existing entirely separately from the verse themes (which are themselves fairly diffuse – “Sell the kids for food / weather changes moods / spring is here again / reproductive glands”). On Nevermind, there were two story songs (‘Polly’ and ‘Something in the Way’), then two character sketches (‘Lithium’ and ‘Drain You’) then the rest of the album consisted of these abstracts. In Utero, again, would divide up relatively cleanly: no story songs, four character sketches, the rest abstract.

The abstract was, by its very nature, a highly adaptable form: note the change between Nevermind’s unspecific combination of broad statements of opinion and imagery versus In Utero’s targeted clusters of autobiographical reference. Cobain’s fixation on the media echoing through words and titles on In Utero in real contrast to the relative anonymity and veiled biography of Nirvana’s earlier songs: a stark turn toward self-reporting. It isn’t uncommon either for fame to impose a certain introversion on lyrics: essentially, once all an artist sees is hotel rooms, stages and business meetings it’s hard for them to say much about the world. Think of Axl Rose moving from the grime of Appetite For Destruction to the love songs and psychological dissections (and aggression) on Use Your Illusion I and II – or even more specifically compare that to Chinese Democracy after a decade stuck in a mansion. Recently The Weeknd’s new album was filled with the least interesting, specific and developed writing of his career.

In conversation the other week someone drew my eye to ‘Do Re Mi’ and pointed to it as a quintessential heroin song comparable to the narcotised drift of Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ or Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ – this air of blissed out warm nothingness to it all (and, having been hooked on the spirit and sung along a million times, people still shake their heads and wonder what heroin’s appeal is…) It reminded me, again, that there’s more than meets the eye inside the music of Kurt Cobain and so – at Christmas – I wanted to sign the blog off for a couple weeks with this remembrance of what an awesome musical force he was.


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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s