To continue the theme I started with my review of Ten, twenty years after its release, I listened to another one of the first albums I purchased, Nirvana’s breakthrough Nevermind. While I’m sure it will be difficult to write anything that hasn’t already been said about this album, I hope my perspective reflects the twenty years that have elapsed since its release.
If Ten was thought-provoking, surprisingly mature music, then Nevermind was somewhat of its antithesis—the songs were short, simple, and even repetitive. While the styling was evocative of The Beatles, the subject matter was not, full of self-loathing and the fallout of a terminated relationship.
I suppose there are people out there whose first encounter with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was when they first put the album on. I wish I could count myself among them. As it was, I had already seen the video countless times by the time the album arrived. Even today, the song still carries the weight of a generation. The quiet intro is offset by a pair of drum beats to the primal roar of a guitar. Rapidly shifting dynamics play a large role in Nirvana’s music and this opening track showcases that motif to grand effect.
Now that I am listening twenty years later, I wonder what it was about this song that made it the anthem of choice for so many people. For me, it’s the hook that resonates. That and the fact that Dave Grohl really knew what he was doing.
“In Bloom” became the album’s fourth single and it’s easy to hear why. It’s the only song on the album that is clearly uplifting in mood, though its lyrics are pretty much a smug nod among those who actually listen to them. Kurt Cobain even sounds like he’s having fun here, and he’s clearly comfortable with the quiet verse, loud chorus dynamic.
It’s tempting to look back at “Come as You Are” as bitterly ironic, given the deadpan delivery of the line, “And I swear that I don’t have a gun,” in light of Cobain’s eventual suicide. It worked as a single because of its simplicity. I remember being able to pick out the main riff after about 30 seconds the first time I held a guitar. Here, we hear an angst in Kurt’s voice that is not present in the first two songs.
The first song on the album that was not a single is “Breed.” While it’s repetitive and goes from loud to louder between the verse and chorus, it has the first truly clever line of the album with the following:
Even if you have
Even if you need
I don’t mean to stare
We don’t have to breed
We can plant a house
We can build a tree
I don’t even care
We could have all three
Here, the narrator waffles on the thought of having children, complete with a sort of spoonerism in the concept of planting a house or building a tree.
The last of the singles on the album is also my favorite song from Nevermind. “Lithium” returns to the quiet verse/loud chorus motif, but does so with a purpose. The song’s title hints at its content, as lithium is a commonly prescribed mood stabilizer used to treat bipolar disorder. The references to “candles” and “Sunday morning” point towards a religious allusion; perhaps a statement that religion is the public’s mood stabilizer. The narrator cycles through emotions that may well mark bipolar disorder: happy, scared, excited, horny and affirms repeatedly that he is not going to crack.
“Polly” is an aberration on this album as the song is a lightly played acoustic number buried in the middle of distorted guitars and hard-hitting drums. It is sung in a laid back fashion that stands in stark contrast to its content. Kurt wrote this song after reading the story of a girl who was abducted, raped, and tortured, but who managed to escape and turn in her captor. The song describes the actions of this sick person as being all for his amusement.
And now, the first WTF song on the album: “Territorial Pissings”. It begins with an out-of-tune line from Krist Novoselic quoting the Youngbloods’ “Get Together” and proceeds to thrash and wail. Kurt’s voice must have been shot after recording this. The song also features a quote from my favorite book, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which is slightly paraphrased here:
Just because you’re paranoid
don’t (sic) mean they’re not after you
Fortunately, the bizarre is replaced by the contemplative as the album’s next song, “Drain You”, is the first of a series of lyrically deep songs that make up the second half of the album. This song is about a needy relationship that is so bad, it’s parasitic. There’s quite a bit of speculation that it’s about drug use, but I think I’d take the slightly more literal stance that it’s (just) about a girl. This song also reverses the dynamic theme set earlier by having quiet verses and an even quieter chorus.
“Lounge Act” is another ex-girlfriend song that features a fantastically woven chorus. Each successive run through sounds increasingly desperate until Kurt breathlessly screams the last one.
An aggressive drum beat opens “Stay Away”, which brings back the quiet/loud dynamic interplay. In one of what might have been Kurt’s more autobiographical lines, he states, “I’d rather be dead than cool”. The song also closes on one of his most controversial lines, “God is gay”, which spins out into guitar fuzz. This is perhaps the strongest anti-conformity song on Nevermind.
“On a Plain” is probably the most disjoint song on the album. It opens with a pretty obtuse drug reference and spirals away from there. One of the phrases talks about “writing off lines that don’t make sense.” This is a somewhat paradoxical statement, considering that, to this point, we can conclude that the narrator isn’t making any sense and that we should write him off … which makes perfect sense.
“Something in the Way” is the official conclusion to the album, at least as far as the track list is concerned. There is one more hidden track to come. This song is the most mellow of the bunch, with a lulling melody and whispered voices. It’s a nice tune, but there isn’t much to it.
This leads into “Endless, Nameless”, which comes up about 14 minutes into the last track, after a long enough pause that you forget there’s still an album playing. It’s spontaneous to a fault and messy. However, it’s an interesting look into Kurt’s mind as we get to hear him improvise lyrics. Death and anger are the main “themes”, if I may even call them that. The song stretches on a bit long and its end is welcome.
To me, Nevermind does not quite stand the test of time that Ten did, if only because the alienation and rage don’t play as well with me now as they did then. I am impressed how well the non-singles held up; I expected the second half of the album to be predominantly filler, as it’s probably been years since I listened to something like “Lounge Act”.
In the end, a comparison to The Beatles is probably the most accurate thing I can say about how Nirvana sounds on this album. The songs are hook-filled and catchy, the song structures are simple and the lyrics sparse and repetitive, and yet just about every song is still a good listen twenty years later. It would have been nice to see how things would have turned out had Kurt decided to stick around. On the one hand, the Foo Fighters might never have existed. On the other, we might still have new music coming from Nirvana or Kurt.