The Best of the Box
Sliver is a collection of highlights from Nirvana’s 3-CD box set, With the Lights Out. It presents a timeline of Kurt Cobain’s work at its rawest through demos, live tracks and outtakes as well a progression of his talents as a singer, a songwriter and a guitar player. The liner notes have great quotes and provide a history of the recordings sessions.
It also offers three tracks that don’t appear in the box set: “Come As You Are” (boom box version), “Sappy” (1990 studio demo) and the earliest recording from an 18–year-old Cobain, “Spank Thru” (1985 Fecal Matter demo) when he along with Dale Crover on drums and bass were called Fecal Matter.
You can hear the first public appearance of the band at a house party. They cover Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” although the track begins with Cobain yelling that he doesn’t know how to play it, which appears to be a half-truth. On 9/25/90, a year after Nirvana released Bleach, Cobain performs two solo, acoustic numbers at KAOS in Olympia, Washington, “Opinion” and “Lithium.”
Dave Grohl joins the band during the Nevermind sessions and handles the drumming on all subsequent performances. The album closes out with tracks from In Utero and beyond.
“Heart-Shaped Box” (band demo) has different lyrics and musical structure from its recording in January 1993 when it was originally titled “Heart-Shaped Coffin.” The opening verse was:
She eyes me like a Pisces when I am weak
I've been buried in a heart-shaped box for weeks
You done undid my magnet tar pit trap
I wish I could catch your cancer when I am sick
And was changed to:
She eyes me like a pisces when I am weak
I've been locked inside your heart-shaped box for weeks
I was drawn into your magnet tar pit trap
I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn back
The last verse in the released version, which contains one of the song’s most vivid lines, “Cut myself on angel's hair and baby's breath”/ wasn’t in the demo version.
Another illustration of Cobain’s work on a song is the two versions of “Rape Me”, recorded at home and with the band where a baby can be heard crying throughout. Is it an effect or maybe Frances Bean? The home demo has a lot of lyrics and ideas that create a much darker story for the narrator. The band demo has been gutted and closely resembles the released version. It leaves the listener curious what went into Cobain’s editorial decisions, but like many things related to him it will remain a mystery.
While Nirvana was mostly know for its loud collision of rock and punk, Cobain showed his softer, acoustic side during the MTV Unplugged, yet it always infused his music. In 1988, a loose jangly guitar can be heard strumming through home demos of “Clean Up Before She Comes” and “About A Girl.” “Do Re Mi” was recorded two weeks before his death in 1994 with occasional Nirvana guitarist Pat Smear playing 2nd guitar. It has a sweet melodic quality reminiscent of early R.E.M that Cobain enjoyed. Courtney can be heard babbling at the end. Was this sound the direction Cobain was heading or would it to have been given the Nirvana treatment before its release?
It is really good to hear Cobain’s artistic growth over the years, but I’m not sure for whom the album is meant. If you aren’t a Nirvana fan, this is not the place to start because it’s too raw for a new listener to appreciate. In fact, the two boom box recording from the Nevermind demos sound horrible. Yet, if you are a serious Nirvana fan, I can’t imagine you not wanting the entire box. The marketing seems to be for the causal fan that’s not as completely committed but still wants to see the artist in development. If you are part of that small pool of people, the CD is a great deal.