With the Lights Out
f it takes you more than two seconds to figure out where the title for Nirvana’s With the Lights Out box came from, you should probably stop reading right now. Review and box set alike are not for you. I highly recommend you purchase the band’s Nevermind or Bleach album and come back in a few months if you’re satisfied. There isn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind that this box is for fans only.
If you’re an overly-obsessed fan of all things Cobain and Nirvana-related, you should probably stop reading right now. Review and boxset alike are not for you. I highly recommend you go blast your copy of Nevermind or Bleach and bank on somebody else buying you this set for Christmas. There isn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind that this collection plays it way too safe to satisfy the über-devoted.
That’s right. Even ten years after the fact, Nirvana continues to bask in their beautiful contradictions. For every nine-minute, extended-feedback version of “Scentless Apprentice”, there are two solo acoustic (but in every other aspect nearly identical to the album version) “Pennyroyal Tea”’s. For every song that you haven’t heard before, there are five you most definitely have in some form or another. Each moment of divine inspiration is matched with a simple form of four-track documentation no one was ever supposed to hear. The set is filled with potential, but in the end can’t quite find the right balance between the raw angst and singer-songwriter aspects of the band.
The discs are laid out chronologically and, as such, the first covers a lot of pre-Bleach territory. The opening tracks: something that resembles Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” from the band’s first show and a radio performance of “Anorexorcist” start things off with an amazing amount of energy that carries through to the appropriately titled “Help Me I’m Hungry” and into some Bleach demos. Raw as they are, these initial offerings document the hunger of any fledgling indie band. Unfortunately, songs of their quality will soon give way to the excess fat.
Nothing on the second disc save “Endless, Nameless” comes even close to the songs on the first. The few that come close to coming close are nothing new and have been better documented elsewhere. Even “D-7”, a personal favorite, sounds off here. And a “rough mix” of “Breed?” Why didn’t they just put “(filler)” next to the title instead? I don’t want to imply the whole disc is bad, but if you played it for anyone and tried to explain the importance of the band, you’d probably get an appropriate blank stare response. Unless you skip to the final track, the “Butch Vig Mix” of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that sounds remarkably like the album version; then maybe you’d get a sympathetic nod.
The third disc is luckily more in line with expectations. It certainly has its share of acoustic demos, but the In Utero-era tracks they’re offset with counter balance nicely. Sequencing two versions of “Rape Me” at the very beginning seemed odd, but it works unbelievably well. You hear the song go from its rawest, most honest and blatant beginnings to the repetitive “Teen Spirit”-ed demo version and for once the solo acoustic bent actually lends some insight to Cobain’s writing process. The previously mentioned set highlight, a nine-minute “Scentless Apprentice” kicks in after the two-for and the disc shows no signs of stopping. It keeps up the energy with parallel universe hits—B-sides in this particular universe— “I Hate Myself and Want Die”, “Moist Vagina” (here cut short in demo form and abbreviated “M.V.”) and “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip” that show how undeniably out there the band were getting at the end, no matter how many suits would rather just spoonfeed everyone “All Apologies.”
And in the end, that’s what it boils down to: What did Nirvana want to be? What did David Geffen want them to be? And what did a couple million teenagers want/need them to be? There are just too many hands grabbing for everyone to get a piece and I can’t imagine anyone’s piece will be big enough on With the Lights Out. The title says it all, because this is certainly a lot less dangerous. It’s so disturbingly safe, it’s actually sad. If someone doesn’t stop these fools from ruining a legacy, their preaching to the choir will soon be screaming to an empty room. They lucked out that Nirvana for Dummies fares better than just about any other act’s catalog would with the same treatment, but they are going to have to do some actual creative thinking next time around (and dig up a better ratio of unheard material). Hope/pray/beg for the best.
Reviewed by: Mike Shiflet
Reviewed on: 2004-12-03