The first song on the box set made to serve one of the most revered and mythologized alternative-rock bands of all time is, of all things, a Led Zeppelin cover. It doesn't do much to support tales of numinous beginnings, but it does help listeners appraise Nirvana as a rock band. Not a beacon of grunge, or a casualty of underground assimilation, or the voice of a generation–just a rock band. That seems to be the message threaded through With The Lights Out, a four-disc set whose demos, live recordings, and video excerpts treat fans to an uneasy study of evolution.
The first disc starts at the absolute beginning, with a cover of "Heartbreaker" from Nirvana's first show in 1987. The sound quality is murky at best, but the first disc's bootlegs and home tapes show Nirvana fumbling around as all young bands should: "White Lace And Strange" (from a 1987 radio performance) casts Kurt Cobain as a metal fan showing off flashy guitar frills, while the acoustic bedroom digression "Beans" holds him up as a weird peer of Ween. Classics like "Polly" and "About A Girl" show up in demo form by the disc's end, but their sloppy, uneven surroundings help illuminate Nirvana's expansiveness from the start.
Disc two covers the time just before Nirvana's story scaled far beyond Seattle and the punk fans wise to its ways. Heard in shadow form through a series of demos, Nevermind comes off here as even moodier and more bittersweet, already haunted in the way it would ultimately sound after Cobain's death. Most of the acoustic demos stay surprise-free, but a full-band cover of The Velvet Underground's "Here She Comes Now" finds Nirvana jangling and muttering in rare form. A 1991 rehearsal demo of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" sounds all the more powerful for its intimacy, as the group members warm up to a song whose future they couldn't possibly imagine. As disc three heads toward songs from In Utero, the spare solo demos prove more evocative and the full-band takes more aggressive. A pair of takes of "Rape Me" show the Nirvana rock machine in full working order, while a store of unreleased songs exhibits the group slithering through a slow, jammy sound it would never fully realize.
The crown jewel for those without the patience or proclivity to wade through sketches of songs better heard in full, the fourth disc is a DVD of live footage from the beginning to the end. Starting with a 1988 set played to a handful of drunk friends at Krist Novoselic's mom's house, the video passages follow the band from back rooms to big clubs. A 1991 version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from Seattle is ferocious, and a moshing mob responds. But the key highlight comes at the end: In a studio in Brazil in 1993, Nirvana traipses through a cover of Jacques Brel's "Seasons In The Sun," with Cobain on drums, Novoselic on guitar, and Dave Grohl on bass; they sound like a group of friends learning to play together all over again. It's not an essential moment in Nirvana lore, but it's a touching end for a box set concerned less with defining statements than humanizing footnotes.