Twenty-one years after a self-inflicted gunshot wound left behind a mural of splattered remains of what Kurt Cobain used to be, we get Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings, a collection of rare, unreleased, incomplete music recorded by Cobain when he was alive. It’s out in November, close on the heels of Montage of Heck the film, an excellent documentary made by Brett Morgen, who’s also curated this album following the unfiltered access he got to Cobain’s archives. Is this okay though — releasing works without the consent of the artist? It’s not like Cobain can file an injunction to stop the release (thanks to the deadness he’s currently afflicted with), but still.
From the POV of the fan, it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of it. There’s a thrilling voyeurism that the recordings — doodles, demos, abandoned projects, potential songs that were either discarded or stored away for a rainy day — offer. It’s an insight into not just the kind of musical direction Cobain would explore outside of (or before) Nirvana, but also a peek into how he would write songs. As Morgen has said in an interview with Billboard, the songs provide a “tremendous insight into his [creative] process”. He also suggests that it’s been put together to create a feeling of sitting in Cobain’s living room while he creates. You pour your deepest insecurities into songs that have no real shape or identity just yet, while a group of complete strangers with unrealistic expectations gathers around sipping hot coffee, judging you. Does that not sound delightful (horrific)?
Music — anything, really — is usually best consumed within context, best appreciated the way it’s intended to be. What worries me is that the songs, in the way they are going to be presented, may end up serving a voyeuristic purpose, not an aesthetic one.
It’s hard to ever objectively find an answer to how important the artist’s intentions are or speculating who a piece of art truly belongs to, so I won’t bother. But the fact that a lot of the songs set to feature on the album are unfinished versions or demos does tilt the scales a bit. Music — anything, really — is usually best consumed within context, best appreciated the way it’s intended to be. I’m not going to assume that the release is some kind of a cynical money-making scam to capitalise on a dead star back in the news (because that’s a slippery slope and who buys music when you can just get a torrent anyway?). Instead, what worries me is that the songs, in the way they are going to be presented, may end up serving a voyeuristic purpose, not an aesthetic one.
That’s sort of the problem here. Tupac Shakur, the radical hip-hop pioneer who was gunned down in the mid-1990s, has had some six posthumous full-length album releases in the time since, and uncountable bootleg releases too. Those are, for the most part, reflective of his chronic songwriting tic, and mostly finished works that he recorded while alive. A whole lot of unreleased Nirvana songs have surfaced over the years, all of which have been lapped up by fans. An example is Old Age, a song Cobain felt he wasn’t quite doing justice to, allegedly, so he shelved it and it released as a Hole song with different lyrics by Courtney Love. But the original Nirvana version happens to be a fan favourite. Radiohead’s annoyance upon the Kid A leaks was not as much about them losing revenue as it was about fans listening to unfinished works, stripped of context.
But then, you know, it is new music from Kurt Cobain that, for one reason or another, may never have seen day of light without Morgen’s intervention. It’s easy to get lost in a bubble of intellectual backs-and-forths about the sanctity (or otherwise) of art and debates on intention. Does it not, then, make sense to simply consume it without any underlying guilt and appreciate the album for what it is — a treasured collectors’ item that allows die-hards to feel closer to a musical hero of theirs? It’s tricky.