Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today we explore the radical underbelly of Nirvana’s 1992 compilation Incesticide.
In the living room of his tiny, late-’80s home in Aberdeen, Washington—the small town where it has been said there is nothing to do but “smoke pot and worship Satan”—Kurt Cobain filled a bathtub with half a dozen turtles. They are model beings for shy, hardened people: wise, solitary, with wearied eyes, and the envious ability to escape inside of themselves completely. “Turtles basically have this ‘fuck you’ attitude,” Cobain explained in 1993 Nirvana bio Come As You Are. Giving voice to his aquatic comrades, he went on, “I’m stuck in the tank, I’m miserable, I hate you, and I’m not going to perform for you.” Being a classic water sign—sun in Pisces, moon in Cancer—Cobain naturally related: Those tough exteriors were facades for an overwhelming sensitivity to the merciless world, a feeling Cobain voiced with every note.
Nirvana spent seven tortuous years and three hard-candied albums bottling the feeling of first seeing that this world is bullshit. Siphoning colossal power out of classic rock and delivering it back to the disempowered, Nirvana voiced the precise moment at which innocence is revealed to be merely a myth. No band before or since has made contempt so catchy, disenchantment so explosive, or disaffection so affecting. Negativity became a genre, a frisson of excitement, and an odd comfort. Nirvana’s beautiful melodies made ugliness a virtue. Sex Pistols said “no future” but for Nirvana things were worse. “No recess,” Cobain convulsed on “School,” from 1989 Sub Pop debut Bleach. “You’re in high school again.” Hell on Earth is not to come. It is right fucking now.
We call that teen angst, but it is not only for teenagers. It hums in the background of life, flavored by the sour taste of knowing that things are mostly unfair. At any time, any age, it is possible to feel utterly disconnected, misunderstood, maladjusted, an alien dropped to Earth, suspicious, sullen, hands in pocket, headphones on: Nirvana. A Nirvana song is a coming-of-age line in the sand endlessly redrawn. It is an excavation of all the frustration below a quietly jaded heart. A Nirvana song is a reality in which you never fell off your skateboard. It is a Walkman that is a portal to some semi-universal misfit energy across time and space, an invitation to smoke weed as far away from the human race as you can manage on a Wednesday, the combustion that occurs when sequestered pain is finally unleashed. It has no gods and no masters. Cobain’s voice became a friend in the heads of lonely people on difficult terms with society everywhere, screaming but also subliminally whispering you are not alone.
Incesticide was released on December 15, 1992, a year and three months after Nirvana—Cobain, fellow Aberdeen weirdo Krist Novoselic, and ex-hardcore kid Dave Grohl—became one of the biggest bands on Earth ever. It’s an unlikely appendage to the globe-smashing Nevermind: Instead of rushing out another LP to further propel Nirvana to the extreme edges of perilous fame, they slid their fans a mixtape. Incesticide is raw sparks to Nevermind’s pop explosion, collecting Peel Sessions, covers, demos, four different drummers, vocal sounds like dying feral animals, unabashed feminism, and yeah, a devil-horn-saluting cock-rocker called “Aero Zeppelin.”
The band’s label, DGC, didn’t intend to promote Incesticide much, clearly considering it a low-stakes time-buying placeholder. Nirvana took advantage of that. Allegedly the band only put it out because Cobain got to make the devastating cover painting and pen the thousand-word essay for its legendary liner notes, which were an indictment of toxic masculinity, a corrective of the exploitative media, and an ode to the underground. Incesticide embodies the free space of punk more than any Nirvana album: part outsider visual art, part punk fanzine, thrillingly raw.
It arrived at the end of a batshit year for Cobain and Courtney Love, who were married that February, just over a month after Nevermind hit its zenith, knocking Michael Jackson out of the No.1 spot on the Billboard charts. Their 1992 devolved from there. The press tortured the Cobains in the months leading up to the birth of their daughter; then followed a custody battle with Child Protective Services. It was the year Cobain wore a “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” shirt on the cover of Rolling Stone and a hand-drawn Flipper tee on “SNL.” By the end of 1992, he wanted to call the next Nirvana LP I Hate Myself and I Want to Die, which had become his standard response when asked, “How you doing?”
Incesticide tells a different story: It forms a snapshot of Nirvana pre-Nevermind, the same band you see goofing around in a cha-cha line with Sonic Youth and dramatically eating grapes in David Markey’s classic tour doc 1991: The Year Punk Broke. In a hypothetical biopic of early Nirvana, these are the early songs that would soundtrack the deadpan humor of their ascent—ranging from ecstatic punk-pop to a maniacal, grinding noise, all united in crudity. Cobain felt Bleach was compromised because he had to avoid overtly poppy material in order to appeal to Sub Pop; he thought Nevermind’s slickness was “closer to Mötley Crüe record than it is a punk record,” embarrassing; and the confusion over the Steve Albini-helmed In Utero production is well documented. Incesticide has less baggage. No matter how gnarled the music gets, it inevitably feels lighter because when these songs were recorded, things were not yet so complicated. It’s humbling—as if Nirvana wished to shuttle back down to Earth and deliver the message, “We are not superhuman. We are passionately covering Devo.”
The opening “Dive” and “Sliver” are Nirvana pantheon. The songs comprised the B- and A-sides of a classic pre-Nevermind single on Sub Pop, intended as a preview of their new poppier direction. (At the time of Incesticide, Sub Pop was planning its own Nirvana B-sides comp, allegedly to be called Cash Cow, but Geffen bought them out on that.) Cobain wanted “Sliver” to be “the most ridiculous pop song that [he] had ever written.” With its manic sideways hop and rudimentary harmonies, it is a hilarious caricature of one, containing the exaggerated naivete and cool simplicity of Olympia bands that Cobain loved, like Beat Happening and the Go Team. Our ’90s punk prophet revs through the words “ice cream” and “mashed potatoes,” giving voice to a boy who is left with his grandparents for a night, watching TV and feeling abandoned. Cobain said he got a K Records tattoo as a reminder “to stay a child,” and Nirvana never reached for that more than on “Sliver.” It was recorded in July ’90 when their Seattle peers Tad were on a dinner break from the studio; Mudhoney’s Dan Peters drummed. It took one hour and delightfully sounds like it.
A complementary meditation on childhood, “Dive” finds Cobain begging “pick me pick me” and swiftly deducing that “everyone is hollow”—as if transforming, within seconds, into the demonic child he painted on Incesticide’s cover, a spirit already ravaged in youth. In the crests and punches and crashes of “Dive,” Cobain shows all the contours and shapes he could carve with his voice. “Dive in me,” he sings with the self-awareness that he will be analyzed. Like the best of Nirvana, “Dive” validates pain while tacitly pulling you out from beneath it, depressive and buoyant in each breath, making the sunken feeling soar. The unassuming “Stain,” similarly, is like a one-song Nirvana blueprint: When Cobain 180s from the lilting “staiiiin” into a metallic roar (“STAIN”), you can hear him working through all the seemingly disjointed sounds in his head—the brain that, in one early Nirvana bio, listed the nearly a capella indie band Young Marble Giants as an influence directly alongside Slayer.
Not everything on Incesticide is of such life-affirming caliber, to be clear, but it’s all a blast to play. A blistering handful of its deep cuts are among Nirvana’s earliest songs: “Beeswax,” “Mexican Seafood,” “Hairspray Queen,” “Downer,” “Big Long Now,” and “Aero Zeppelin” were from their first demo, recorded January 23, 1988, with Seattle scene fixture Jack Endino. The demo was cut and mixed in one afternoon; Dale Crover of Melvins drummed, and Cobain paid the $152.44 studio bill with money from his janitor job. There’s a flash of spiraling, raging post-hardcore in “Downer” (a Bleach bonus track), but it is maybe generous to say there are a few duds among all this testosterone-fueled ennui. The lyrics to “Mexican Seafood” are plain nasty (index: “yeast infection,” “vomit,” “fleas”), the riffs prefab. As Cobain wrote in a press release about the amusingly irreverent “Aero Zeppelin”: “Christ! Let’s just throw together some heavy metal riffs in no particular order and give it a quirky name in homage to a couple of our favorite masturbatory ’70s rock acts.” It’s like the pop antagonists in Nirvana were trying to reveal themselves as unspectacular, to debunk the myth of male genius.
Like any thoughtful punk, Cobain pondered anarchy. The “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video starred cheerleaders with anarchy-A jackets. The 1979 teen revenge fantasy film Over the Edge—which concludes with delinquent kids setting their school ablaze amid a PTA meeting—all but defined his personality. He considered selling Nevermind with radical-political essays. But the greatest manifestation of Cobain’s anarchic sensibility was undoubtedly in his commitment to dispersing his own power. He took any opportunity to diffuse the spotlight onto his lesser-known inspirations, shouting out dozens of bands in the Incesticide liner notes, on T-shirts, with opening slots, and especially via covers.
Incesticide features three, all recorded on John Peel’s BBC show. Nirvana’s full-sprint take on Devo’s “Turn Around”—the B-side to “Whip It”—gave Cobain the chance to invoke Bob Dylan (“Who said don’t look back? Don’t believe em!”), and feels like a symbol of proud nerdiness. There are also two covers from Glasgow twee pop band the Vaselines, “Molly’s Lips” and “Son of a Gun.” The Vaselines are a band you’d worship if you were interested in deliberately unpopular culture, things that sweetly validate the wrongness in your life. Cobain loved the askew, droll, befuddlingly cheery Vaselines so much he named his daughter Frances after the band’s Frances McKee. That glee circulates through these sunny, arresting bits of high-wire noise-pop. To Cobain, punk was a synonym for freedom—bands that said life is cheap, eat the rich, fuck the police; bands on the margins, deliberate anti-virtuosos, like square pegs never to fit into a circular world. In the Incesticide liners, he wrote, “We just wanted to pay tribute to something [punk rock] 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.” Nirvana’s covers distilled that admirable ambition.
In Cobain’s journals from this time, in between lyric drafts and notes to “call thurston,” there is one page that pops out, full of revolutionary zeal. In a letter to Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail, Cobain details his music-industry plot to infiltrate and subvert, to “sabotage the empire by pretending to play their game.” The piece reflects the influence of riot grrrl on his thinking. He writes, for example, about the hypocrisy of a school that teaches girls how to deal with rape culture instead of teaching boys about consent. He writes about how sexism had to be “blown wide open” in order to begin to “expand on all other –isms,” because no matter how you break it down, at the top still sits the white, corporate, irredeemable man. “It’s almost impossible to de-program the incestually-established, male oppressor, especially the ones who’ve been weaned on it thru their families...like die-hard NRA freaks and inherited corporate-power mongrels,” Cobain wrote. “But there are thousands of green minds, young gullible 15-year-old boys out there just starting to fall into the grain of what they’ve been told of what a man is supposed to be, and there are plenty of tools to use. The most effective tool is entertainment.”
These are the seeds of how Kurt Cobain became the most famous punk feminist in music history: how he went on to play for millions of “MTV Unplugged” viewers while wearing a T-shirt for San Francisco band Frightwig (their 1984 debut included the pugnacious “My Crotch Does Not Say Go”), how a Nirvana benefit show raised $50,000 for Bosnian rape victims, how Cobain named their hit single after a phrase coined by Kathleen Hanna, how Nirvana posed for press photos in front of a public installation by conceptual artist Jenny Holzer broadcasting the insurrectionary message “MEN DON’T PROTECT YOU ANYMORE.” For years, I was put-off by how male Nirvana could sound. But when I consider their aero-zep leanings as bait for the boys that Cobain mentioned in his journals—when I hear his mission to “suck em in with quality entertainment and hit em with reality”—its weight registers clear as day.
Incesticide collects some crucial, germinal entries of Nirvana’s feminism. The wound-up, savage, but emasculated lurch of “Beeswax” was originally released on the groundbreaking 1991 compilation Kill Rock Stars. How’s this for a mangled hook: “I got my dingaling spayed!” Kill Rock Stars was the first full-length music release on the foundational Olympia feminist punk label of the same name. It opened with Bratmobile’s sing-song “Girl Germs” (“You’re too cozy in your all-boy clubhouse!”) and placed Nirvana square in between a brooding Bikini Kill manifesto called “Feels Blind” (“Your world has taught me nothing”) and the fiery minimalism of Mecca Normal. Nirvana is tethered to the riot grrrl context, and the label certainly benefited from their contribution. Kill Rock Stars sold 25,000 copies; the label’s founder Slim Moon was able to release music by Bikini Kill and Unwound with the money.
A feminist ethos also infused Cobain’s songwriting. The breezy pop-punk of Incesticide’s “Been a Son” tells the story of a girl whose parents wish she were born a boy—a comment on how patriarchy sees women as second-class citizens, on how it dictates what it thinks women should be. Nirvana placed the startling folk song “Polly” at the center of Nevermind, which appears on Incesticide as the plugged-in ripper “New Wave (Polly).” “Polly” was inspired by the horrific story of a 14-year-old girl who was kidnapped on her way home from a punk show at Tacoma’s Community World Theater (where Nirvana played early shows) in June of 1987, and brutally raped and tortured. As a slow, acoustic ballad, “Polly” insisted you hear its gruesome words. This lesser, compacted, neutrally-sung version was recorded on the BBC. “Polly” was originally titled “Hitchhiker” and, if not directly inspired by the 1978 song “Hitch Hike” by Swiss punks Kleenex (another Cobain favorite), then it is at least in a lineage with that earlier song, which is similarly about the price women can pay for adventures in public.
On Incesticide, “Polly” includes a disturbing footnote: In 1991, a girl was raped by two men while they sang its lyrics, as the liner notes report. This sickened Cobain. “At this point I have a request for our fans,” he wrote to close the liners. “If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us—leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.” Punk is an open door; when Nirvana arrived at it, the entire world was on the other side. With the world hanging on their every word, Nirvana told the world to wake up or fuck off.
The liner notes are the single most incisive document we have of the total intervention Nirvana staged on popular culture. Five hundred thousand people bought Incesticide within two months of its release, and in order to get to the life updates from Cobain, they had to first read 500 adoring words about the humble feminist punk band the Raincoats. Based in London, the Raincoats were only beginning to play their instruments upon forming in 1977; a quietly eccentric band who charged the air and hallowed ground in 1980s Olympia; who, like Nirvana, interpreted punk as a possibility, not one sound. Cobain bore a striking resemblance to Raincoats bassist Gina Birch—two punks with blonde mops of hair, drowning in shaggy mohair sweaters—bizarre, really.
He wrote of his quest to find the Raincoats’ long out-of-print 1979 debut at the Rough Trade shop in London. A Rough Trade employee advised him to visit guitarist and singer Ana da Silva at her cousin’s antique shop, where she worked, and though Ana was busy, she offered to mail an LP over if she could find one lying around. In a few weeks, it came: “that wonderfully classic scripture,” as Cobain called The Raincoats. “It made me happier than playing in front of thousands of people each night, rock-god idolization from fans, music industry plankton kissing my ass, and the million dollars I made last year,” he wrote. “It was one of the few really important things that I’ve been blessed with since becoming an untouchable boy genius.” Books say Cobain was painfully shy; The Raincoats was introversion as punk.
I hear traces of The Raincoats play out on Incesticide. “Polly” has a clear precedent in the UK band’s ominous “Off Duty Trip,” which similarly chronicled the rape of a woman by a soldier in a Northern Ireland park. Cobain evoked the seismic anguish of “The Void” every time he sang. And rarely have I heard a song capture the feeling of lovesickness with such nauseating truth as the Raincoats’ “In Love”—but the guttural churn of Nirvana’s “Aneurysm” comes close.
The final track of Incesticide, “Aneurysm” is the apex of this compilation and Nirvana’s career. It is a shrill romantic exorcism, and like The Raincoats, it builds episodically: a tense, elongated, thrashing lead-in—each note like a glance over some deviant edge—giving way to the relief of just simmering drums, before an eruption of slashing noise and vulnerability. “Love you so much it makes me sick”—Cobain seems to curl his body around each syllable, the song’s guiding principle. What better word than aneurysm could describe the unpredictable, corporeal shock of infatuation that just dies? What makes the feeling dissolve? When Cobain beckons “Come on over and do the twist,” he evokes original teenage kicks, however cloaked in metaphor that may be. Nirvana’s dance craze is pogoing, which he incites.
“Aneurysm” never fails to put the stupidest grin on my face, and I cannot hear it without flailing every inch of my body to its squirming emotional upheaval, without jerking my shoulders to its torrential feedback of the heart, as if succumbing to every knot and crevice of this punk song could save my life. At all the peaks of Incesticide, a Nirvana song is the same: music for outsiders among outsiders, a thread of connection among the disconnected, a friend screaming loud enough to reach inside your shell, empathic enough to ensure it doesn’t break.