Hey, hey! We’re at twenty songs now! Can you even believe that I’ve managed to stick with this? I can’t.
Writing this series has really rekindled my Nirvana-mania, I have to admit. At a friend’s recommendation, I’ve been reading that book written by Nirvana’s manager. I had previously written that off as unnecessary and weaselly grave-robbing for the financial game of a hanger-on, but I’m enjoying it. I will read anything about this band. It is a sickness.
Last week, we rolled a pair of songs that featured one of the undeniable monster hits of Nirvana’s career and a much lesser-known song. This week… here’s an undeniable monster hit of Nirvana’s career and an even lesser-known song.
Oh, man. Where to begin about this one?
I remember getting my hands on a printout of the guitar tablature for this song and sitting in my bedroom plunking out the “Heart-Shaped Box” intro for the first time, feeling an electric thrill run up my spine that I was now able to emulate this huge, scary, catchy, fascinating song. I think that the songs on Nevermind really shifted the conversation in the music world and held a certain mystique, but if I’m going to be perfectly honest, I didn’t tumble into an obsession with the band until hearing “Heart Shaped Box” (and others off of In Utero).
“Heart Shaped Box” is still catchy and hooky, but it sounds more… dangerous than anything on Nevermind. For me, this chorus is as iconic as any of their other big songs, and probably more evocative of how the early-to-mid 90s felt for me, personally. Who else had a voice that sounded like this? I mean, loads of people would try, and would continue to try for many years. But nobody sounded like this. Not quite. The “Hey! Wait!” howl stands for me as one of the most iconic rock vocal performances of all time. Am I overselling this? Am I alone?
Actually, who cares. This is, like, the only place I get to be the boss!
The verses and chorus, which are both comprised of the same chord progression, are the gold standard of quiet/loud alt-rock dynamics. The song is packed full of guitar phrasing that seems discordant on its face, but manages to be tuneful and intriguing throughout. The bass guitar sounds amazing. The drum performance is fucking incredible, and sounds brilliant due to that perfect Albini-recorded room tone. The disintegrating fuzz tone on the guitar solo? Holy fuck!
I could write a lot about this song, wow. I’ve already talked about the vocal hook in the chorus, but I haven’t gotten into the vocal melodies in the verses, which I think may be the strongest of Nirvana’s career, with gorgeous harmonies to match.
It’s a perfect song, guys. I don’t know what else to tell you. That’s not true, I could tell you lots of other things. But I’ll stop.
Clean Up Before She Comes
We move onto what may be an even more obscure cut than the “Ain’t It A Shame” cover. This is a demo, and I have debated whether or not it should be included. I’ve decided that my red line for this series is going to be anything that is a song versus anything that is just a “jam” or improvisation. I’m not going to include “jams”. But this is a song, so I’ll include it. Even if it didn’t see a polished recorded version or proper release.
The “verse” section of this song (specifically the “clean up before she comes” mantra) features the most interesting and most clearly thought-out parts of this track. And I do think that it is a pretty good part. The guitar riff seems like a cleanly-played version of a riff that might be played faster and dirtier on Bleach a few years later. The way that it’s presented at a low simmer, with swelling layers of vocal harmonies could have been the bones of a very cool song, were the rest of the tune more thought out.
The remaining parts of the song seem less well constructed and more of a case of throwing ideas at the wall to see if they stick. This is totally reasonable to do, for a demo. Kurt probably never intended for this song to find a release. But he probably couldn’t have anticipated the enduring phenomenon that his music would be, more than 20 years after his death. Or maybe he could anticipate it, and he hated it.
Anyway, this song works as a curiosity for the real Nirvana maniacs, but I would never recommend that anyone seek it out to listen to. Would I have liked to have heard some ideas in this vein fleshed out by the band in a more complete way?
I was starting to wonder if “Ain’t It A Shame” would live at the bottom of the list forever, but I think that I can throw “Clean Up Before She Comes” there without much trouble. If the song didn’t kind of fall apart, it might have wound up higher, but it’s really just got the one cool section and the rest doesn’t particularly work.
Going to catch shit with some people for this, I’m sure, but my next move is going to be a bold one. After giving some thought to “Heart-Shaped Box” while I wrote about it, I’ve realized that it deserves – for now – to top this list. My instinct would have been to rank it lower, but I realized that I would have just been doing it because I am wary of ranking anything that I would consider a huge single (still played on modern rock radio all the time) too highly. That’s a bad instinct, because obviously some of the best songs are going to be the huge singles.
“Heart-Shaped Box” is, I believe, a more intricately constructed song than “Scentless Apprentice”, and although it is not as visceral, it features a wider range of emotion, both musically and lyrically. It’s going to be a tough one to beat.
The updated ranking is:
- Heart-Shaped Box
- Scentless Apprentice
- Territorial Pissings
- Very Ape
- Serve The Servants
- Love Buzz
- Lounge Act
- Been A Son
- Moist Vagina
- Mr Moustache
- Lake of Fire
- Swap Meet
- Oh, The Guilt
- Pen Cap Chew
- Ain’t It A Shame
- Clean Up Before She Comes
“Scentless Apprentice” is still the greatest Nirvana song of all time!
In its right place. Clean Up Before She Comes is always an example I use of posthumous releases diluting a body of work for the worse. Nirvana had an immaculate discography before Kurt died
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Yeah, I have mixed feelings about it, but I think that I have to agree overall. The b-sides released with the band’s approval while Kurt was still alive were probably enough to roll with in terms of “hidden gems”.
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