One of the more surreal sights for anybody in their late 20s or early 30s is to see children half their age walking around today with a Nirvana shirt on. Despite the fact that Kurt Cobain’s last fatal twitch of a finger took place over 11 years ago, he’s joined that gang of musicians such as Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix whose early death means that his music has been passed onto generation after generation.
The fact that Nirvana only left three studio albums behind means that Geffen have to dig deeper and deeper to satisfy the seemingly endless demand for Nirvana material. So it is that, with Christmas handily approaching, yet another compilation of Nirvana demo versions and ‘odds’n’sods’ is brought out.
To be fair to Geffen, this isn’t the rather cynical exercise it may appear to be at fair glance. Sliver is a repackaging of last year’s mammoth box set When The Lights Go Out, and distills the original’s four discs into a single CD of 22 tracks. This is appealing for those casual fans who didn’t fancy forking out £30 for the box set – although quite what the original purchasers will make of the 3 previously unreleased tracks contained here is anyone’s guess.
Put let’s put aside the moral arguments and concentrate on this album’s main selling point: the music. While Sliver certainly isn’t the best place to start if you’ve somehow managed to get through life without hearing a Nirvana record, it is still essential listening if you’re a fan of Cobain’s work.
While the second half of the disc concentrates on Nirvana’s better known material, the more fascinating tracks can be found early on. The 1985 recording of Spank Thru, recorded in Kurt’s aunt’s house, was apparently the first Nirvana song ever performed, and it’s impossible not to get a shiver of excitement at hearing things like Kurt’s cough between verses, and the first time he launches into that gut-busting scream.
There’s also a track from the first ever live Nirvana performance, at a house party in Aberdeen, Seattle and the impossibly exhilarating Mrs Butterworth, with Kurt seemingly disappearing off into a stream of consciousness rant about retiring from the profits of a flea market. Mrs Butterworth also marks the first appearance of a regular Cobain theme – “I’m gonna die” screams the chorus.
Ex-Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan also makes an appearance on Ain’t It A Shame, a superb cover version of the Leadbelly song – which of course, would eventually lead to the covers of the Unplugged In New York sessions. There’s also a home demo of the song that first hinted at Cobain’s melodic genius, About A Girl. The chronological running order of Sliver means that we really get to see how the band progressed and developed over the years.
As the album reaches the Nevermind period, it inevitably becomes less interesting. The ‘boom box’ version of Smells Like Teen Spirit is appallingly recorded and Cobain’s vocals are all over the place – but as this was never intended for public consumption, perhaps we shouldn’t be too harsh. It’s a similar story with Come As You Are – the poor quality means that you may as well just listen to the original Nevermind version.
Of more interest is Old Age, an out-take from the Nevermind sessions, and Oh The Guilt, which was originally released as a split single with Nirvana pals The Jesus Lizard. The former is a surprisingly laid back song, while the latter is almost terrifying in its intensity, featuring that Cobain howl in full flow. It’s a good testament to the band’s variety that two different sides to their music can be easily represented here.
As the In Utero sessions hove into view, we get two versions of Rape Me, rather strangely, and slightly pointlessly, positioned back-to-back here, a blistering demo of Heart Shaped Box which, even in this rough form, sounds like a future classic, and the inevitable closing track of All Apologies, still sounding unbearably poignant after all these years.
So while probably not recommended for any newcomers to Nirvana, Sliver is still a fascinating insight into the Cobain legacy and a great demonstration of why he was one of the most important figures of his generation. One thing’s for sure, they’ll be selling those T-shirts for some time to come.