Verse chorus verse

Nirvana at an early gig, with Jason Everman (extreme left) on guitar.

With new box set, Nirvana cleans the vaults and comes as they were

When the surviving Beatles carpet-bombed the holiday season in 1995 with their multi-media Anthology series, the hoopla presented rabid fans with a dilemma. On one hand, it was gratifying to have some new (or at least previously unreleased) Beatles music to dissect. On the other hand, it was slightly depressing to consider that the first Anthology compilation - a rough-hewn assortment of pre-historic home recordings, jittery audition performances, studio outtakes, and live tracks - easily outsold classics such as Revolver and Rubber Soul. Much as the diehards wanted to dive headlong into this muck, they had to wonder whether such a posthumous, pants-down demystification enhanced or tarnished the group's legacy.

The same question applies to With the Lights Out, a four-disc, vault-cleaning retrospective of Nirvana's career. It aims to be a definitive career-spanning chronicle, while limiting itself to the refuse of the band's recorded catalog. Among other things, this strategy forces you to listen to familiar songs in new ways, which is often a good thing.

For example, the collection includes several of Kurt Cobain's acoustic home demos, and while the band's 1993 MTV Unplugged show proved how durable his songs were at low volume, they're often even more striking when he's by himself. Disc two opens with four such demos: The never-before-heard "Opinions" is all sarcastic bile ("Congratulations, you have won/a year's subscription of bad puns"), while the childhood nightmare sagas "Sliver" and "Been a Son" show Cobain tapping into what would become a pet theme. "Lithium," Cobain's finest marriage of melodic brilliance and philosophical insight, sounds fully formed a year before it was recorded for the Nevermind album.

Like the Beatles' Anthology, With the Lights Out gets better as it goes along, largely because the early Nirvana had a penchant for ill-conceived metallic bombast. For all of Cobain's public genuflecting at the altars of the Meat Puppets and Sonic Youth, it's telling that the first song we hear on this set, from the band's first show in 1987, is a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker." Another live track, from the following year, includes part of Led Zep's drum workout, "Moby Dick." It can hardly be an accident that Cobain - like Jimmy Page - made a habit of building his songs around punishing guitar riffs.

That feeling for the classic hard-rock of the '70s, filtered through the ironic distance of the indie movement, made Nirvana a cultural phenomenon in 1991. Metalheads embraced the familiarity of their volume and aggression, even as indie-rockers delighted in the subversiveness of a feminized, gay-friendly, social outcast cranking it up to 11.

For whatever reason, Cobain buried his own melodic skills for a couple of years, so much of the first disc makes for a tough slog. Listening to aimless screamers such as "Raunchola" and "Pen Cap Chew" can briefly raise questions about this band's greatness. But even during this lost-in-the-sludge phase, Cobain could offer a hint of his warped wit on "Mrs. Butterworth," which concludes with a rap about converting old syrup jars into pieces of art that will make him rich.

Right about the time Cobain discovered his songwriting voice, Dave Grohl replaced Chad Channing on drums, and things truly coalesced. Grohl could not only rock with greater power than Channing, he brought dynamics to the band. The kind of tight, dramatic shifts from quiet to loud which became synonymous with Nirvana can first be heard on a 1990 demo for "Aneurysm," which happens to be Grohl's first appearance on this collection. Much of the Nevermind-era material is presented here in rough demo form, and only an obsessive historian could get much enjoyment from a horribly low-fi rehearsal recording of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

With the lights out
(Geffen Records)
That's the way much of this set goes. The best-known songs are offered as works-in-progress that make you miss the released versions. The obscure songs sound like they deserve to be obscure. It's the kind of a retrospective that only makes sense after a band's career is over, when exposing your ugliest warts can almost be interpreted as a public service. With patience and perseverance, however, you'll find some rare gems here. Two Nevermind outtakes, "Old Age" and "Verse Chorus Verse," would fit comfortably on that uniformly stellar album, and a cover of the Velvet Underground's "Here She Comes Now" (recorded for a Velvets tribute album) is rendered with great care. One of Cobain's last songwriting efforts, "Do Re Mi," is presented here in acoustic demo form, and it sounds like a lost power-pop classic. Cobain, in his last Rolling Stone interview, talked about wanting to abandon Nirvana's sonic trademarks, and move in a direction closer to R.E.M. "Do Re Mi" might have been a tentative stab for that new sound.

The DVD included with this set follows the same pattern as its aural partners, moving from archival footage that's historically intriguing but musically ramshackle (e.g., a 1988 rehearsal at Krist Novoselic's mother's house, with a camera-shy Cobain facing the wall as he sings) to increasingly powerful live performances (a pulverizing "Love Buzz" at Grohl's debut gig with the band).

The last video clip finds the band in a Brazilian studio (with Cobain on drums, Grohl on bass, and Novoselic on guitar), inexplicably attempting Terry Jacks' nostalgic weeper, "Seasons in the Sun." As Cobain sings "we had joy, we had fun," home-movie footage shows the band on the road. It's all done for ironic effect, of course. Nirvana had plenty of angst, outrage, confusion, sarcasm, remorse, longing, and weariness. Joy and fun were never a big part of the equation.

By Gilbert Garcia