Scentless Apprentice: A tribute to Kurt Cobain

A couple weeks ago I entered into another Nirvana phase. Then I realized April 5th is the anniversary of Cobain’s suicide. I don’t put any metaphysical stock into those sorts of coincidences, but it’s still eerie when they happen.

I’ve been a fan of Nirvana ever since I first heard them and saw their videos on MuchMusic. Some of the first songs I learned on guitar were tracks like “Teen Spirit” and “Heart-Shaped Box.” They’re a great band to study as a beginning musician because the songs are technically simple but the compositions are deceptively sophisticated.

The great separator between Nirvana and the horde of imitators that came after is Cobain’s ear for melody. It’s easy to listen them and dismiss it as just a bunch of screaming and moaning. But take a closer look. As stripped down and aggressive as the performances are, there’s a lot going on behind the madness. Here’s a great video breaking down “Smells like Teen Spirit”:

If you don’t enough music theory to follow along with the video, the point is that Cobain chose unorthodox notes to form his melodies. What does that mean? Herbie Hancock calls certain notes “butter notes.” These are notes that fit really nicely within chords and are what most people gravitate towards when improvising. I’m sure you’ve listened to the radio for awhile and felt like all these songs sound the same. That’s because they’re all using chord tones for their melodies. Whereas “colour tones” are notes that feel a little more left field, not so obvious. Cobain used these “colour tones” for his melodies. That’s what makes them so captivating.

Cobain also used punk rock aesthetics to highlight the melody, using bare-bones power chords and simple riffs. For a lot of the verses, there’d only be Novoselic’s bass before exploding into the chorus. This sort of minimalism really created space for the melody to shine through.

As Beato points out in his video, this sort of analysis of Nirvana’s music inevitably raises questions of whether Cobain really knew what he was doing. People like to dismiss him as some sort of savant. I’m not an expert on Cobain’s life, but my understanding is that he didn’t know much music theory. But neither did John Lennon. They had great ears and probably spent a lot of time breaking down their favourite music.

Many practitioners can’t properly explain their craft. Through practice, they’ve developed a deeply personal method for modelling and creating their projects. This is true for music, literature, cooking etc. I think people like to dismiss them as “naturally talented” because they’re resentful and too lazy to put the work in themselves.

I think the biggest rebuttal to the idiot savant argument is how Cobain usually reproduced the melodies for his guitar solos. Clearly, he’s not just going into the booth and singing whatever comes into his head. There’s a pattern in his mind that he’s capturing.

I think a lot of people only started to appreciate Cobain’s voice after the unplugged performance

Personally, what I love most about Nirvana is the marriage of punk rock fury and pop-song craftsmanship. Cobain really understand how to craft memorable hooks and songs that built and released tension. This is what makes any music great, no matter what the genre. But he took the same formula that made the Beatles legendary and couched it in a modern punk dynamic. It comes off as simplistic because the craftsmanship is so masterful.

Like a great novel, you don’t see the plotting and character arcs; you just get swept up for the ride.

This is what Nietzsche termed the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Apollo is associated with logic, order, and rationalism, whereas Dionysus is associated with chaos, instinct, and emotion. The ancient Greeks saw them as a pair, not opposites. You need that balance. Work that’s purely Dionysian is often an incoherent, self-indulgent mess. The flip side is work that’s uninspired and boring.

And I think that was Nirvana’s formula for success.

Yes, Cobain screamed like he was “boiling nails” (as Dave Grohl described), used a lot of distortion, and even (purposively) played sloppy. But no one wrote better hooks and melodies than him. It’s why people still listen to Nirvana but not Puddle of Mudd or Seether.



~ by braddunne on April 29, 2021.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: