There are a few lines about Kurt Cobain in Strange Tools, an enlightening new book by the philosopher and cognitive scientist Alva Noe about what art can teach us about ourselves.
He’s reacting to an earlier opinion about Cobain’s band Nirvana written by Roger Scruton, the conservative English philosopher of aesthetics. Scruton argued that the group represents a vanishing point in the pop era, where “the audience does not listen to the music, but through it, to the performers” because, he said, performers like Cobain are shamanlike, and there is not much musical material to listen to, and what there is tends to be crude or simple.
Noe — born only three years before Cobain, as opposed to Scruton, who’s a generation older — comes at it from another angle. He seems fine with Nirvana; there are just certain things he doesn’t expect from pop heroes.
“These artists aren’t in the close listening business,” Noe said. Pop is about spectacle, exhibition, fandom, he explains; “it isn’t about the music.”
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I disagree in general, but let’s talk about Nirvana in particular. It had a defined group sound. Cobain had his own favorite traditional musical grammar, and had worked out a way to make his voice, with a salted-dough squashiness and asperity, melt into the cracks of his songs. Imperfect gestures and howls and feedback can be organized into musical material that is not necessarily simple at all; he knew this.
But regarding Montage of Heck, the new album of Cobain’s solo home-recording scraps, Noe might be at least half-right.
It’s a collection of bits that sound variously like fun and art and practice, some of which were used in the soundtrack of the recent HBO documentary of the same title by the filmmaker Brett Morgen. There are two editions of the album: standard, with 13 tracks, and deluxe, with 31. There is no reason to bother with the short version. This is for completists. Delimiting completism makes no sense.
Of some interest: an authentically personal version of the Beatles’ And I Love Her, and a few run-throughs of songs that Nirvana later recorded, including a semi-engaged Been a Son. But there are also shapeless minutes of Cobain singing absent-mindedly, or with a comically low or high or screaming voice over repeated riffs, or playing with delay and wah-wah pedals. There are doodley sound collages and spoken-word pieces, funny or acerbic or alarming, that might give you a little window on his personality and process, but don’t teach us anything particularly new about him. Close listening doesn’t really help.
Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings
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