'Incesticide' Is Nirvana's Best Record Because It Reveals Their Contradictions
After 15 years, the band's dissonant B-side LP gets a vinyle reissue. We take a look at its genesis and its prescience.
Ask any room of Nirvana fans what the Seattle band's best album is and that room will ignite in furious debate. There are those that believe Nevermind's radio-friendly grunge deserves the honour because of everything that album achieved—namely, uh, changing music forever. Then there are those that think its follow-up, In Utero, was the better record because Steve Albini recorded it, which resulted in that unrelentingly, coarse sound that gave Kurt Cobain's deeply anguished lyrics significant gravitas. There are also original fans that think Nirvana's inexpensive, pre-Grohl debut, Bleach, set the benchmark, and that things just weren't the same once the boys sold their souls to Geffen. I've even heard the odd duck admit she/he believe Nirvana were best when they reduced their bleeding noise pop to acoustic lullabies on the misleading, but nonetheless classic MTV Unplugged.
So, opinions on what Nirvana's best album vary, but seldom does anyone make a case for 1992's Incesticide and at first it's easy to understand why. The Frankenstein-ian compilation was an assortment of "rare B-sides, BBC sessions, original demo recordings, outtakes, and stuff never before available." It wasn't intended to sit alongside Nevermind and In Utero, just chronologically between them. And yet it's the Nirvana record I listen to the most. I'd even go as far as saying it's my favourite record by Nirvana.
When Incesticide was released at the tail end of 1992, I didn't hesitate to pick it up. I owned Bleach, along with a few CD singles, so I was well aware that Nirvana didn't always sound like "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or "In Bloom." But because of its inconsistencies (it features a multitude of producers, engineers and even drummers) and its historical insignificance (most of its tracks were previously available on compilations, singles, and EPs), Incesticide often gets treated like the black sheep of the family. I've never agreed with this neglect.
In the year leading up to its December 1992 release, Nevermind had shifted millions of copies and their label DGC was searching for a way to capitalise on its wildly unexpected success. The band had these songs kicking around which became a cash-grab just in time for Christmas acting as filler between the studio albums. That it went on to sell a respectable half-million copies in its first year spoke to Nirvana's pull (an astonishing number when you think about record sales in this day and age), but both the band and label opted not to throw any promotion behind it. Truth be told, Incesticide was only ever released because Cobain was given full creative control over the project. He took total advantage of the opportunity, selecting the tracks without much consideration, insisting on his creepy-ass original artwork to grace the cover, and using the liner notes to air his many grievances over becoming a rock star (more on that later).
In many ways, Incesticide was the antithesis of Nevermind: a motley crew of cast-aside songs that lacked the sparkle and shine of the preceding professionally produced, mixed, and sequenced rock album. But here was the most popular rock band of 1992 revolting against their audience by releasing an album of anti-hits. In the wake of Nevermind, were fans really supposed to accept Bleach-era B-sides without scratching their heads? Some regarded the release as an attempt by Cobain to reclaim his old fans and weed out the fair weather fans that he imagined would recoil from the discordant grind of a song like "Big Long Now." The stomach-turning title alone must have been off-putting enough for some people. Although there were no reported cases of censorship, as there were with In Utero—its taboo-ish title triggered the ire of at least one parent who smashed her stepson's CD after seeing it. (The origin of "incesticide" is up for debate. Months before the record's release, industrial/noise artist Foetus contributed a song called "Incesticide" to a compilation he compiled called Mesomorph Enduros. Chances are, Cobain was aware of the album, which also featured his peers like Melvins, Tad, and the Jesus Lizard. But the source was never revealed.)
Like the band and label, the press didn't really appreciate it for what it was either. Select called it "Chris 'n' Dave 'n' Kurt's poison doggy bag." NME wrote it off as "patience-testing material from an embryonic, Green River-fixated Nirvana is best forgotten, unless you're truly smitten." And Rolling Stone gave it a backhanded compliment, writing, "Nirvana was a great band before Nevermind topped the charts. Incesticide is a reminder of that and—maybe more important—proof of Nirvana's ability, on occasion, to fail."
Obviously, no one could have predicted Nirvana would last another 16 months, and so maybe those sky-high expectations in 1992 made it more difficult to appreciate the songs for what they were. In hindsight though, Incesticide really did have some of the band's best songs. Post- Bleach A-side "Sliver" is a simple, straightforward pop tune unlike any others in Cobain's catalogue, featuring the most comprehensible and relatable lyrics he's ever penned. Its Butch Vig-produced B-side "Dive," on the other hand, is a dirty, pounding sludge-feast that best bridges the gap between basically all of their LPs. "Molly's Lips" and "Son of a Gun" might be Vaselines covers, but it's hard to hear them that way, especially compared to the twee-ful temperament of the originals. And I honestly don't think there was a better song written, recorded or performed by Nirvana than "Aneurysm."
Perhaps more than any other record, Incesticide presents Nirvana's two personalities at war. Yes, the sequencing is messy and careless, almost as if the goal was to get their newer fans to completely forget about flipping to the B-side, but Cobain seemed to pit the two sides against each other. There is the bubble-grunge pop in the front end: "Sliver," "Been A Son," "Molly's Lips," "Son of a Gun" and "(New Wave) Polly." And then the dissonant, noise rock in the back end: "Beeswax," "Hairspray Queen" and "Big Long Now." Stuck at the end stands "Aneurysm" just to fuck with everyone.
If there is one major criticism I have for Incesticide, it's that Nirvana didn't empty the vault and add to its 44 minutes. There was still more B-sides available, such as the Nevermind-era's "Curmudgeon" and "Even In His Youth," not to mention covers of the Wipers' "Return of the Rat" and "D-7." Why not make it as complete as possible? Oh right, no one was really supposed to like this album.
For a LP that received little to no radio or video push, no real interviews or even a word of support from the band, Cobain curiously made the album sleeve his labor of love above the music. First of all, there is his repulsive painting on the cover of some poppies next to a doll-like creature clinging to an alien-like creature. But even more painstaking was the effort he put into writing the liner notes (which you can read in full here). Two months before the release date, he obsessively worked on a 1000 plus word note that he rewrote a reported 20 times. What begins as an anecdote about feeling humbled when he met Ana de Silva of the Raincoats, continues to unfold as a list of ways in which he felt grateful for his success (i.e. touring with Shonen Knife, getting the Vaselines to reunite, "having the power to insist on bringing Bjorn Again to the Reading Festival," etc.). But then the tone quickly changes.
First he comes to the defence of his wife, Courtney Love, who was under fire after Vanity Fair published an expose claiming she admitted to taking heroin while pregnant. "My wife challenges injustice and the reason her character has been so severely attacked is because she chooses not to function the way the white corporate man insists," Cobain writes. His rules for women involve her being submissive, quiet, and non-challenging. When she doesn't follow his rules, the threatened man (who, incidentally, owns an army of devoted traitor women) gets scared."
Next comes the "big 'fuck you'" to sell-out accusers. "I don't feel the least bit guilty for commercially exploiting a completely exhausted Rock youth Culture because, at this point in rock history, Punk Rock (while still sacred to some) is, to me, dead and gone," he writes. "We just wanted to pay tribute to something that helped us to feel as though we had crawled out of the dung heap of conformity. To pay tribute like an Elvis or Jimi Hendrix impersonator in the tradition of a bar band. I'll be the first to admit that we're the 90s version of Cheap Trick or The Knack, but the last to admit that it hasn't been rewarding."
But then, Cobain sends a pointed message to his fan base, one that is frighteningly prescient and echoes a lot of the troubles that have become even more overt in the 25 years since he wrote it. "At this point I have a request for our fans," he writes. "If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different colour, or women, please do this one favour for us—leave us the fuck alone! Don't come to our shows and don't buy our records. Last year, a girl was raped by two wastes of sperm and eggs while they sang the lyrics to our song 'Polly.' I have a hard time carrying on knowing there are plankton like that in our audience. Sorry to be so anally P.C. but that's the way I feel."
One can only imagine how the "blond one," as he signs his name at the end, would have handled everything that happened in 2016. He likely would have railed against the anally P.C. President-Elect Trump and maybe even performed in support of Hillary, but it's hard not to imagine him standing up for minority groups and using his influence in every way possible way to bring change. And because of that, and as weird as it sounds, I think Cobain's liner notes may be the most significant thing about Incesticide.
But even without them (and only select copies of the album included Cobain's letter), this ragtag collection presented one of the most revered bands of all time in the truest light: as a raw, gifted bunch of misfits that no matter how hard they tried, they were just too good to remain hidden in the underground scene they so loved.
Incesticide receives yet another vinyl reissue on January 13, 2017.
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