The ‘New Kurt Cobains’
Who will be the next Kurt Cobain? Can there be another? And who would want the job, given how things turned out for the first one? Such questions were quick to surface in the wake of the Nirvana frontman’s 1994 suicide, and they of course beget more questions. Like, which Kurt Cobain are we talking about? He was, after all, different things to different people — an angsty grunge spokesman to trend-spotting journalists, a commiserative friend for troubled adolescent fans, a driven songwriter with a deep knowledge of rock history and at least some interest in leading “the biggest band in the world,” according to former cohort Dave Grohl.
The “next Cobain” chatter died down in the late ’90s, as grunge gave way to the shock rock and rap of Marilyn Manson, Fred Durst and Eminem. If these artists suffered Cobain’s internal conflicts, they raged more than they reflected, and given all the teen popsters and goofy mall-punk bands competing for Carson Daly’s attention, their villainy served them well. In the ’00s, MTV stopped playing videos entirely, and those inclined to think critically about rock music put their faith in neo-garage rockers, dance-punk dandies and sensitive strummers like Conor Oberst, M. Ward, Ben Gibbard and Ryan Adams. There was no big push to measure any of these folks for Kurt’s cardigans.
Fast-forward to 2013, the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s ‘In Utero,’ and alt-rock nostalgia is raging like a Woodstock ’99 bonfire. Kids not yet born when ‘Teen Spirit’ hit have spent the last decade discovering Kurt’s music and starting bands, and with that has come a fresh round of “new Cobain” prognosticating. Below are seven potential “new Kurt Cobains,” rockers who in some way embody some tiny fragment of what the man was about.
Ultimately, of course, there can never be another Kurt Cobain. He was a singular talent with rare charisma, but that’s not even the real reason. The Internet, as plenty of cultural critics have pointed out in pieces smarter than this one, has replaced MTV and radio, fragmenting the populace and rendering obsolete the kinds of mass cultural moments that united children of the ’90s and made the Nirvana phenomenon possible. But as long as teenage angst pays off well — forever, in other words — the search for a new Kurt will continue, if only because we want to believe.
Zachary Cole Smith of DIIV
In a candid Pitchfork interview, DIIV mastermind Zachary Cole Smith refers to Kurt Cobain as a "spiritual guide," and while he admits he's yet to be sidled with the "voice of a generation" tag, it's something he sees as possible. DIIV, named for a Nirvana tune, don't make angry, anthemic music -- the wistful, twinkling guitars on 2012's gently lapping 'Oshin' distract from any pain in the barley intelligible lyrics -- but in so far as Smith is smart, sensitive, self-aware, suspicious of corporations and an admitted drug dabbler, the rail-thin blonde is more than a little Cobanian. He's also in a high-profile relationship with a fellow musician (Sky Ferreria), and he says the followup to his breakout disc will be "dark and troubled" and more confessional in nature. Sound familiar? At least he's got the benefit of learning from Kurt's mistakes, and DIIV's sophomore set will sell thousands, not millions, so that thought ought to relieve some of the pressure. When DIIV returns, expect an artistic step forward, not a public breakdown.
Dylan Baldi of Cloud Nothings
As with DIIV, Cloud Nothings started out as a one-man show, and like Zachary Cole Smith, leader Dylan Baldi is a sharp guy schooled in seminal rock and punk texts. But that's where the similarities end. The Baldi heard on Cloud Nothings' self-titled 2011 breakthrough is more nerd-punk tunesmith than tortured indie hero -- think Billie Joe Armstrong or McLovin with a guitar -- and the songs hit like Super Soaker blasts of Jolt Cola. Baldi didn't get all dark and broody until the follow-up, recorded with 'In Utero' producer Steve Albini, and perhaps anticipating the Nirvana comparisons, he called the record 'Attack on Memory,' a phrase that shows up in 'No Sentiment,' his declaration of war against nostalgia. Musically, it's a battle the dude ain't exactly winning, as much of 'Memory' harks back to Cobain's beloved Pacific Northwestern pioneers the Wipers, and Baldi has talked up spastic U.K. post-punk legends Wire as an influence on his next record. But he's clearly an ambitious artist not content to keep bashing out grabby punk tunes, and even if, as he says, Nirvana weren't a huge influence, he's a striver just like Kurt. Even better: He's got the attitude and composure to fashion himself a long career.
When Nathan Williams started drawing Cobain comparisons, it was for all the wrong reasons. After downing too much pre-show booze and Valium at the 2009 Barcelona Primevera Festival, Williams picked a fight with the audience and his drummer and got pelted with bottles. For a good year and a half afterward, the meltdown dominated all talk of his Cali crud-surf combo, but then he dropped 'King of the Beach' in 2010, and people started paying attention to the music. Whereas his first two albums had been lo-fi to the point of unlistenability, 'Beach' was brash and bright, the kind of thing Kurt might have written had he been raised in warmer environs. Wavves fourth full-length, 'Afraid of Heights,' is even better -- and more Nirvanaesque. He still sings about hating himself, and as he told Pitchfork, he still parties with alcohol and pills, but he seems to be maturing, and he's presumably still going strong with longtime girlfriend Beth Costentino, she of Best Coast fame. Best case: Williams has found the right mix of stability and volatility. Venturing too far in either direction might prove disastrous.
Christopher Owens, formerly of Girls
If, as a journalist once put it, grunge is "what happens when children of divorce get their hands on guitars," Girls is what happens when children of Children of God do likewise. Owens grew up a member of that religious cult, which took his family to Eastern Europe and forced his mother into prostitution, and it wasn't until his teens he managed to break free and move back to America. After a stint in Texas, he landed in San Francisco, and by the time he had started in music, he'd experienced quadruple the pain of your typical two-family kid. And yet on the two albums he released with Girls, Owens mustered a brave face, pairing his mournful Elvis Costello yelp with happy-go-lucky beach-pop tunes. The pain is there, but there's also a sense of resilience, and the same applies to 'Lysandre,' the record he released under his own name after disbanding Girls. In a May 2013 interview with the Quietus, Owens said he's "in a better place," and he looked ahead to mining new influences on a thematically unified 'Lysandre' followup. Maybe this doomed romantic isn't doomed after all.
Beth Cosentino of Best Coast
Why can't the next Kurt Cobain be a girl? Kurt was way into gender equality, and if he had to vote for a successor -- kind of a weird idea, admittedly -- he'd be all about our girl Beth. To some, Cobain was a slacker, and at times, that's how Cosentino comes across in her songs. She loves the beach, her bedroom, weed, her cat and her boyfriend, Wavves main man Nathan Williams, even if he sometimes drives her nuts. Live, Best Coast have covered Nirvana's 'About a Girl,' a sad tune with a sweet melody not too far removed from the plainspoken pop tunes that have landed Best Coast on the road with the likes of Green Day. "I don't want to be how they want me to be," she sings on midway through the group's excellent sophomore album, 'The Only Place,' distancing herself from workaday high school pals with babies and mortgages. She's not a slacker, and neither was Kurt. We don't know why they cry, but it sure sounds good.
Responding to Cobain comparisons in a Huffington Post interview, Ty Segall replied, "That is the biggest compliment in the world, but I think it's just my hair." Indeed, the Cali rocker sports shaggy blonde locks and has been known to rock a flannel shirt, but the similarities don't stop there. The prolific Orange County garage rocker has a knack for combining big hooks and crushing riffs, and on his latest album, the stripped-down acoustic set 'Sleeper,' he hints at some of the parental issues he's wrestled with in recent years. He's known as a recycler of '60s fuzz rock, but he also digs the Beatles, Howlin' Wolf, the Wipers and Sabbath, so after venting about their folks, he and Kurt would have had plenty to talk about. Not that Seagall's got much time to chat, what with 'Sleeper' newly released and a full-length with his latest side project, Fuzz, due out in October.
Rock's second-most beloved Kurt is rarely, if ever, likened to the first, and that's because in many ways, this Philly chillmeister's aesthetic is the antithesis of Nirvana's. Oh, Vile's grungy looking, and he shrugs his way through his albums, but his are languid, reverb-heavy Americana daydreams, not distorted first-pumpers. That said, Vile has a devotion to his craft not unlike Cobain's, and he's a family man with a couple of daughters, so he no doubt feels some of the same pressures. Luckily, as with many of these "new Cobains," he seems a long way from self-destruction, and he's only the "voice of a generation" for a subset of 20-something indie rock dudes whose biggest problems stem from not being able to track down certain obscure 7-inches or decide which organic waffle truck to try after kickball practice.