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Music

Why Kurt Cobain's final release leaves a bitter taste in fans' mouths

He never wished to be the voice of a generation but in the eyes of millions that is exactly what Kurt Cobain is, and will always be. He was the doyen of alternative rock, curating a soundscape that continued the narrative spun by John Lennon, proving that rock was at its most impactful when it was at its most truthful. And like the Beatle before him, he had to prove his vitality through his art, meaning that the vocals had to be earnest if they were to be ominous. 

‘You Know You’re Right’ is drenched in emotion as Cobain screams through the cylinders, aching to find that lingering, longing note that will exhibit his pure intentions. He doesn’t quite hit it, but that’s not for lack of trying, and the journey in between is lit with anger, every note poised for success, every scream designed to shock as well as enthral. 

It was the last song Cobain recorded before he gave in to his demons and took the ultimate plunge, leaving behind a legacy that’s almost breathtakingly impressive in its brevity and impact. But the lyrics betray a soul torn between entertaining millions and feeding the happier strands of his being. Ultimately, the song remained unreleased until 2002, partly out of respect to the deceased singer and partly due to a lawsuit between his widow and Cobain’s former bandmates. 

Timeline: Tracing the intense relationship of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love

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Bassist Krist Novoselic held onto the recording before mixing it in 1998. As it happens, the bassist couldn’t discern a major difference between the finished product and the original demo but felt that the added layers of compressor helped to make it an easier listening experience for potential listeners. 

Cobain’s widow Courtney Love performed the song with her outfit Hole, describing it as the “almost” last composition her late husband had committed to tape. Buoyed by the emotion, Love performed a vocal that was arguably even more powerful and certainly more sincere to the recording Cobain committed to audio. She was clearly invested in the material, not least because it provided her one last portal into the mindset of a man she had lain to rest. 

This likely explains why she was so determined for it to be heard by as many people as possible and felt that the song would be better suited to a single cd format, as opposed to the boxset Novoselic and Dave Grohl had pencilled for the release. She sensed that the tune would be lost on a boxset, caught between a wall of unfinished vignettes when it had the potential to sell millions and millions of copies. 

Love had her opinions, while the band had theirs. “I’ve always considered everything she said,” Novoselic conceded. “We’ve considered it and agreed and said, ‘Hey, that’s a great idea, Courtney.’ I tried to get along with Courtney as best I could, but there’s only so much you can do.” It didn’t help that Love was airing the tune at events, but the three people involved were eventually willing to settle the court case like reasonable adults. It was officially released on the Nirvana compilation in 2002. 

Like many rock songs, it should never have been dragged through the mud the way it was, especially since the songwriter in question wasn’t there to fight for his intellectual rights as an artist. The song proved a feisty anthem, but it scarcely hit the raw heights of ‘Come As You Are’ or ‘In Bloom’. What it boasted was a hint as to where the band were going next on their musical journey. 

Dave Grohl has continued to enjoy a successful career as the frontman of Foo Fighters, leaving Novoselic to act as custodian for the band. Love continues to be a media presence, and the legacy of Cobain is as prevalent as it ever was. 

Not even lawsuits can take the impact away, no matter how terrifying the prospect, or how cutting the suits may seem. Nirvana embodied the danger, the romance, the character, the contrast, the contradiction and the flair of 1990s rock, and they were never so vital as they were on Nevermind. Oasis continued the narrative with Definitely Maybe, countering the American argument with the sound of the Irish working classes rising in Europe. 

‘You Know You’re Right’ offers an appetising look at where Nirvana went next, and listeners were understandably dismayed by the lack of development, knowing that it did not lead the band onto a complete work. But what it did offer was one more sampling of Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl working together, so surely we should enjoy the “what happened” and not wade in the bitter waters of “what might have been?” 

Stream the track below.