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Kurt Cobain’s new ‘solo album’ is a disappointing act of exploitation and opportunism

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Though humanity has succeeded at the fetishizing of every member of rock’s infamous “27 Club” – from Jim Morrison to Jimi Hendrix – none of its tragic members have been hyper-analyzed to the degree that Nirvana’s iconic poster child has.

In 2003, his private “Journals” were released, becoming an instant New York Times bestseller. In 2004, three-and-a-half hours of Nirvana’s loose ends and scraps were collected into the “With the Lights Out” box set. In the years since, as virtually every recorded moment of the man’s life has been dissected, people have increasingly scraped the absolute bottom of the barrel – earlier this year a credit card Cobain used at one point was put to auction – to profit from his genius.

Brett Morgen’s bracingly intimate documentary on Cobain, which was released in May, and gives this album its name, did not feel exploitive. Though some of “Montage of Heck’s” more personal moments – like a startling and hilarious bit of home footage where, while shaving, Cobain uses his temporary mustache as an opportunity to do his best impression of Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell – feel invasive, the film has an air of definitiveness.

The involvement of virtually all of Cobain’s family and closest friends made it feel like the final say, the absolute portrait of the man that was dubbed, alternately the spokesman of Generation X and the last true rock star.

The film’s success in delving as deeply into Cobain’s mind as any project before it, without necessarily exploiting him, is what makes “Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings,” its accompanying soundtrack album, all the more grotesque. Though its content, home recordings of Cobain – to be brutally honest – either screwing around or committing the absolute earliest sketches of soon-to-be-legendary songs to tape, serves a purpose in the film, without its visual accompaniment, it’s utterly pointless.

In the film, these scraps are used with animation and interviews with Cobain’s early girlfriend, Tracy Marander, to give a full illumination of his character, his sense of humor and his creative process. But without that added context, the listener is left with what the album gives them: Cobain making funny voices, noodling aimlessly on the guitar until he can find something usable and trying to figure out the chords to songs that would later change the fabric of rock music.

Some have argued that “Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings,” released Nov. 13, is illuminating in that it brings some of Cobain’s humor, which is so crucial in getting full the picture of his personality, into his discography for the first time. But, if you want a better sense of Cobain’s humor, anyone can watch the band’s famously, hilariously, awful covers of The Knack’s “My Sharona,” Boston’s “More Than A Feeling” or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” which have been available online for years.

But what really makes “Montage of Heck” the album unsettling in a way the film of the same not is not, is that it’s being marketed and sold as a Kurt Cobain solo album. In the film itself, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic says “(Cobain) was also very careful and stubborn about how the art was presented, because he didn’t want to be humiliated.” With that said, it’s almost impossible to imagine that Cobain would’ve liked to these humbling, to be generous, documents released and marketed as the first Cobain solo album.

It’s crucial to note that many of the tracks on “Montage of Heck” are not really “demos.” Material like “The Yodel Song,” which features Cobain literally yodeling over a rough acoustic riff he’s barely begun working on, or “The Happy Guitar,” which is just two minutes of Cobain attempting some folk-style fingerpicking, or the self-explanatory “Reverb Experiment,” is indisputably at the pre-demo stage.

An “early demo” of “Scoff,” a cut from Nirvana’s 1989 debut, “Bleach,” is almost indecipherable, and gets cut off after 37 seconds anyway. Similarly, if you sit through the three insufferable, scratchy minutes of “You Can’t Change Me/Burn My Britches,” you can start to see only the tiniest roots of “Something In The Way,” one of the band’s most endearing classics.

Even the few somewhat fully fleshed-out tracks on “Montage of Heck” are a monotonous blur. Much has been made of the acoustic cover of The Beatles’ “And I Love Her” that is included here, but with little reason. Cobain, who always had an aptitude for brilliant interpretations of everything from Devo to the Meat Puppets, largely sleeps through the timeless McCartney ballad, doing justice to neither McCartney’s talents nor his own.

Meanwhile, the early version of the blistering 1993 Nirvana classic, “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle,” barely rises above a confused whisper, with Cobain only seeming to really enunciate for the chorus.

“Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings” does nothing to improve the standing of any of the parties involved. For Brett Morgen, this album smacks unfortunately of a cash grab, a unique way to package and sell something that he’s already sold. For Cobain, this “solo album” merely displays his bare honesty as someone who was unafraid to document both his most light-hearted and darkest moments.

But as listeners and consumers, we have as much an ethical as a personal choice to listen to this album or not. And, seeing as this as album is being marketed as the work of a notorious perfectionist, the ethics are sketchy at best.

Jackson Maxwell can be reached at [email protected], and followed on Twitter at @JMaxwell82.

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