Within a matter of months after Kurt Cobain's suicide in April of 1994, fans started asking for the official release of all the demos, stray songs, alternate takes, and rarities in Nirvana's vaults. Due to various legal disputes between the surviving bandmembers and the Cobain estate, this long-awaited set of unreleased material did not appear until late 2004, when the three-disc, one-DVD box With the Lights Out finally appeared. Not counting the 20-song DVD, the box contains 61 tracks, with nearly two-thirds of this material seeing its first official release on this set (the remaining songs are B-sides, one-off singles, and compilation contributions that didn't make it to the compilation Incesticide, or appeared after its 1992 release). Much of this unreleased material has circulated frequently on bootlegs over the past ten years -- most notably on the 1995 box set Into the Black and the multi-volume Outcesticide series -- but the fidelity here is much, much better, and there are several items here that have never been bootlegged, including early alternate versions of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Heart Shaped Box." Just as importantly, no major item that appeared on the bootlegs does not appear here (with the arguable exception of the Kiss cover "Do You Love Me"), which makes this the definitive collection of Nirvana studio rarities and outtakes. As the sessionography in the liner notes indicates, this hardly contains all of the unreleased material, but it certainly contains all of the noteworthy unreleased material.
All of which covers what With the Lights Out is, but it doesn't cover whether the set is worthwhile, either as music or as a history lesson. For Nirvana fanatics, it certainly is. While the packaging is slightly irritating -- it opens lengthwise, making it a little difficult to navigate -- it is lovingly, carefully prepared, expertly sequenced and selected (each disc roughly corresponds to each of their three official albums, all following in chronological order), terrifically remastered, and given a book with plenty of rare photos, posters, and memorabilia replicated in the liner notes, along with a touching essay from Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and a DVD filled with rare video, including a selection of songs filmed at a 1988 rehearsal at Krist Novoselic's mom's house, the public debut of "Teen Spirit," and a version of "Seasons in the Sun" recorded in a studio in Brazil. However, for listeners who are less dedicated, this set may not be quite as compelling as it initially seems. Listening to archival material like this, whether it's on an official release or a bootleg, is a bit of a chore, since it not only doesn't have the flow of a proper album, but the selections are chosen for historical reasons and therefore are interesting as curiosities as much as they are as full-fledged pieces of music. And that's the case here -- while there is much good music here, there isn't much that adds to Nirvana's legacy, nor is there much that's revelatory. To be sure, the demos are interesting, particularly when Cobain is testing different words to such well-known songs as "Teen Spirit" and "Rape Me," or performing such crushing, metallic rockers as "Serve the Servants" and "Very Ape" as acoustic numbers, but these are ultimately subtle differences that don't alter our understanding of the songs. Similarly, to hear the early, pre-Bleach band run through Led Zeppelin covers and formless but promising heavy rockers during the first portion of the set is worthwhile, if only to hear a great band in its embryonic stage, but it doesn't result in a disc that's likely to be played more than once or twice; it's for the historical record, but it's not necessarily musically significant, since it captures a band finding its voice, not immediately delivering undeniable music.
A handful of songs on With the Lights Out do qualify as both historically interesting and significant music, and these are mainly the songs that were completed and saw official release, or were heavily bootlegged because they were close to release. They include: the Nevermind outtakes "Verse Chorus Verse" and "Old Age"; the 1992 non-LP single "Oh the Guilt" and the "Lithium" B-side "Curmudgeon"; the compilation tracks "I Hate Myself and I Want to Die" (originally released on The Beavis and Butt-Head Experience) and "Sappy" (originally released on No Alternative, where it was titled "Verse Chorus Verse"); the solo acoustic demos of the unreleased songs "Do Re Mi" and "You Know You're Right" (the electric version, initially released on the hits compilation Nirvana, is not present here). That's eight songs. That's not to say that the rest of the box set is filler, since it isn't -- as far as unreleased demos and alternate takes from a major band go, it's interesting stuff. It's just that Nirvana's outtakes -- unlike Bob Dylan's, the Velvet Underground's, or the Beatles' -- are footnotes to their story, not part of their main narrative. As long as this is understood, nobody who gets this box set should be disappointed, since it is as good as it could possibly be. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine