Nirvana – With the Lights Out Box Set Review

“With the Lights Out”
DGC Records

Over 10 years since the death of the band’s front man led to an abrupt end of the group, Nirvana fans finally got their hands on a “holy grail” of sorts: a four disc box set of the groups demos, hard-to-find songs and other rare material.

I really want to love this set. When you first take a look at the contents, you can’t help but think this is the best box set to ever be released — there’s just so much material included. But is the wealth of the sonic offerings really enough to sell “With the Lights Out?”

It’s a real catch 22 when you look at it …

On one hand, it would seem to be a fan’s most treasured wish: to hear all the songs you grown to love stripped down to their barest forms in some cases; to be able to actually hear a song’s progression from acoustic demo to rough track to finished product. Sprinkle in some obscure live tracks and some noteworthy b-sides and you should have a hit on your hands.

It depends on which side of the fence you’re looking at this from.

Diehard Nirvana fans should, in theory, be chomping at the bit for something like this. For more casual listeners, it’s something to easily overlook. In reality, this is simply a large collection of sub-par recordings that, for the most part, were never meant to be released. And that is the conundrum when you really take a look at this set.

Sure, it’s fun to hear an early version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Rape Me,” to hear how the lyrics evolved over time, to see how Cobain and Co. modified the song structures … but ultimately you’re just reminded of the strength of the actual songs and would rather just listen to those.

The initial excitement over hearing something like the acoustic tracks “Beans” or “Clean Up Before She Comes” is soon replaced (after a couple of listens) with a sense of “how often will I really want to listen to something this rough?”

Don’t get me wrong, there are some gems here.

On the second disc, outtakes like “Oh the Guilt,” “Return of the Rat” and “Old Age” are welcome additions to a fan’s collection (for those who hadn’t already tracked these songs down). Cobain’s solo offering of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” (which showed up as a live rendition on the “Unplugged” disc) is a nice gem among the collection.

Disc 3 kicks off with two versions of “Rape Me,” an acoustic track with weak vocals, and a more polished demo. The acoustic version sounds more like Cobain still trying to figure out exactly what he wanted to do with the song. The demo is much more lively as the song was really starting to take shape at this point. As a bonus, baby Cobain can be heard (intentionally I’m thinking), crying in the background at various points throughout the song, a nice touch.

The demo of “Scentless Apprentice” is much more raw than the track that eventually found its way onto “In Utero.” The whole song sounds like a pretty good jam session, though, it should be noted that the overall sound is almost more Foo Fighters (Grohl’s eventual band) instead of Nirvana.

There’s interesting acoustic versions of “Serve the Servants,” “Very Ape” (sans lyrics with mumbling) and “Pennyroyal Tea” (which was surprising near-completion).

As for “Heart Shaped Box,” this is another instance of Cobain still exploring for just the right lyrics (“I wish I could eat your cancer when I get sick;” “Locked in heart-shaped coffins”). The same goes for “Milk It” or “M.V.” (a song that wasn’t that accessible to being with, I was actually surprised they included a demo of the track instead of the finished version).

Though it isn’t labeled as such (read: demo), “I Hate Myself and Want to Die” doesn’t sound like the version that eventually went public, unlike “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip” and “Marigold” (probably the crown jewel of songs that never made it on official Nirvana release with Grohl on vocals), which are pretty much the versions that showed up on international release and b-sides. Same goes for “Sappy” (otherwise known as “Verse Chorus Verse”) though the demo was on disc 2.

The most interesting aspects of the set as a whole, is not only the ability to see the songs develop over time, but to see the band actually attempt to fully realize songs. Watching Cobain take “Rape Me” from an acoustic mish-mosh to a raw demo and then to the finished track (on “In Utero”) is something fans of bands are rarely able to experience. Then, on top of that, listening to something like “Other Improv” (off disc 3), obviously a glimpse of the band trying to find a song, is just amazing to be able to experience.

On the flip side, how many people really want to pull out demo material when they’re in the mood to listen to music. When this set is, musically, over 70 minutes of material spaced out over three discs, one can’t help but think there was some way to shorten things a little.

In the end, you are able to say that this is a fantastic look into the inner working of a band, but much like a history book is an interesting look into, well, history. Do you get something out of reading the book? Yes. Do you want to read it over and over? Maybe. “With the Lights Out” is the musical equivalent of a Nirvana text book. It’s something that is worth listening to … at least once in a while. It’s just that the really good tracks are spaced out amongst the rawer material, which makes this something only Nirvana diehards would really be interested in.

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