Whilst you certainly wouldn’t consider Kurt Cobain to be the sort of songwriter wrapped up in the lovey-dovey world of G Flat Minor, teary-eyed performances and rhyme about the birds and the bees, he was nevertheless no stranger to penning his own take on the love song.
Far from the Hallmark version of pop romance or the Joni Mitchell-Esque poetry tackling love in all its warts and all guises, Cobain had a way of breaching the subject in a way that was uniquely grunge. In some ways, however, this swimming against the stream way of looking at romance in song imbues his efforts with a heart strained truth. The songs, therefore, resonate on a deeper level than some pithy shop-worn abstraction of what a love song ought to be about.
More often than not, his romantic side comes to the fore in covers. Over the years, he dotingly tackled ‘And I Love Her’ by The Beatles, ‘Love Gun’ by Kiss and ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ by David Bowie, lending each of them a tender touch of sincerity (which is easier said than done when it comes to ‘Love Gun’).
That being said, when you dive beneath the surface of profane splatter lyrics, thrashing drums and scratching guitars, there is a naked exposure that displays Kurt innermost yearnings.
Below we’ll be looking at when he elucidates his universal need for love and his acknowledgement of the problems with it in depth via six of his best love songs, in a career that, for the most part, skirted clear of the trope.
Kurt Cobain’s six greatest love songs:
6. ‘Love Buzz’
Although this track was first recorded by Dutch group Shocking Blue back in 1969, the fact that Cobain trawled through the archives to find something that encapsulated everything he felt like a fabled glass-slipper elevates the song beyond your ordinary cover. Nirvana’s Skid Row Rehearsal 1987 version rammed home the message that they were a band with a darker side.
“Please don’t deceive me when I hurt you” is a dichotomy that speaks of division and love existing simultaneously. Kurt’s voice is gruff and heartfelt as he tackles the track. Nirvana also covered ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’, ‘Do You Love Me?’ and ‘Molly’s Lips’ as part of his borrowed love songs oeuvre.
5. ‘About A Girl’
As previously mentioned, Kurt Cobain was not afraid to be disdainful about the oversaturated presence of love that has gone beyond sweet and pushed into saccharine. Yet, he was equally quick to acknowledge his need for it.
In 1989’s ‘About A Girl’, he croons out one of the most simple and straightforward lines in the history of the love song – “I need an easy friend / I do with an ear to lend.” It wasn’t the most classically romantic way to describe his then-girlfriend Tracy Marander, but it illuminates a simple truth and explores a functionality that is all too often abandoned in favour of nicer sounding words.
4. ‘Drain You’
Ostensibly a love song through lines such as, “I like you” and “One baby to another says, ‘I’m lucky to have met you'”, the song could also just as easily be about a relationship with heroin. Strewn throughout the song are references to dilated pupils, tubes and infections, meaning that much like ‘There She Goes’ by The La’s there is every given chance this is about the bedevilling effect of substance abuse.
Either way, the song is a sultry ballad to devotion and its issues it incorporates. And the song itself provided one of the most blistering moments of their iconic Reading 1992 set and was performed with the sort of vivified energy that any love song would be happy to receive.
3. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
The inspiration behind one of the most iconic and instantly recognisable songs of all time came when Cobain’s then-girlfriend, Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill, spray-painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his bedroom wall after a night of drinking and graffitiing in the streets of Seattle.
Teen Spirit was a deodorant brand, and Tobi’s implication with the spray-painted message was that Kurt had been ‘marked with her scent’. Although the song itself might be about Kurt being “disgusted with my generation’s apathy, and with my own apathy and spinelessness,” the fact that he was stirred enough by a romantic gesture to tackle such a subject makes the song almost an ode of sorts to his former girlfriend and vandal, Tobi Vail.
2. ‘On A Plain’
A whole range of subjects are explored on Nirvana’s 1991 album, the utterly iconic Nevermind, and each subject touched upon is smashed into with head-on honesty.
‘On A Plain’ documents the moments of self-indulgence, self-pity and ultimately just plain old selfishness that naturally permeate any given relationship. “The finest day I’ve ever had,” Cobain cries out, “Was when I learned to cry,” stirring a notion of self-evident truth rarely mentioned in the so-called ‘oneness’ of the typical relationship song.
1. ‘Heart-Shaped Box’
‘Heart-Shaped Box’ from Nirvana’s final album, In Utero, offers a profoundly revealing look at Cobain’s mindset at the time of writing. The song explores the involuntary magnetism of love and the loss of control therein, with lines like, “I’ve been locked inside you heart-shaped box for weeks / I’ve been drawn into your magnet tar pit trap.”
In retrospect, the song acquires a rather haunting quality now that we know just how dark his relationship with then-Hole frontwoman Courtney Love would become. At the time, however, it found Kurt’s songwriting at its most open and in doing so, it portrayed the vulnerability of adoration perfectly. The last song the band ever recorded, ‘You Know You’re Right’, would painfully reveal the converse notion of ‘Heart-Shaped Box’.
When it comes to ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, very few songs, have painted a clearer picture of the emotions that stirred the songwriting; it is stark, revealing and profoundly resonant.