Incesticide, Nirvana’s 1992 odds ‘n sods compilation released as the group was basking in the glow of their Nevermind acclaim, is the band’s punk release. The band has other releases with far more of the destructive punk spirit (In Utero being the obvious example, although there’s an argument to be made for Bleach, too), but Incesticide is the closest Nirvana ever came to sounding like a punk band. And I do mean “punk.” None of that hardcore, post-genre-fracture stuff. This is punk, year one, 1977. Never before or again did Nirvana sound so much like an amalgam of The Jam and The Clash.
It’s not that Nirvana was ever very far from the likes of The Jam; the more melodic strains of ’70s punk were never far from critics lips as they described the band’s sound. But with Incesticide, whose tracks were recorded in that especially fertile interim between the releases of Bleach and Nevermind, Nirvana shows its most unabashed adoration for that sort of music, speeding up their temp ever so slightly and playing up the guitar melodics ever so much more. This is most memorably apparent with “Sliver,” a Nirvana all-timer in the vein of “Lithium,” only in the key of punk and not soft-loud ’80s underground, but in case that wasn’t enough, a trio of mid-album covers, beginning with Devo’s “Turnaround” and followed by an especially peppy Vaselines duo, “Molly’s Lips” and “Son of a Gun,” turn the album in a practically pop-punk direction that wouldn’t have felt out of place on a Green Day record of the era (Kerplunk had dropped several months prior to Incesticide). And then there’s “(New Wave) Polly,” a reinterpretation of the Nevermind track that, along with the Devo cover, evokes not the New Wave of synths and angular production but the kind that The Clash salute on “I’m So Bored With The U.S.A.” Three chords, a shout, don’t forget to sneer.
Perhaps emboldened by the pop success of Nevermind, the songs released on this compilation (songs that, let’s not forget, had mostly been floating around the Nirvana repertoire for years) forefront raw vocals and buzzing guitar tones in a way that only popped up sporadically on Nevermind and later on In Utero. This is a lyrics and riffs album if there ever was one, with a downplayed rhythm section and a rotating door of drummers placing the emphasis firmly on the band’s punk roots. Even when the record turns darker and sludgier in its final third, where the songs turn longer and more tortured, there’s still that same discordant, melodic energy present, albeit in considerably twisted dimension, as in the shrieking but somehow still catchy “Hairspray Queen.” It’s only with the concluding “Aneurysm,” the most Nevermind song of the bunch, that the band ever completely returns to that purely grunge vein that made them so popular to begin with.
In the ranks of great B-sides compilations, Incesticide is up there. It’s a fantastic collection that represents the band in an important transitional phase and sheds new light on their signature sound. And yet, unlike so many “documentary” B-sides collections (including some later ones from Nirvana themselves) intending to capture a band in a moment for posterity, it never feels anything less than complete. Incesticide can stand not just with the great B-sides compilations; it stands with the great Nirvana albums, period.