Classic Music Review: Nevermind by Nirvana

nevermind

No other artist and no other album dominated the 90’s in America like Nirvana and Nevermind. This was especially true after Kurt Cobain’s death, for Americans, along with all their other notable traits, are quite ghoulish creatures at heart.

To begin to understand how an under-publicized record stuffed with songs containing perfectly meaningless lyrics played by a band with little musical range could have achieved such a lofty position in musical history, you have to understand the differences between The Baby Boomers and Generation X.

Baby Boomers believed they were special; they thought of themselves as people on a mission. For many of them, the mission didn’t matter so much as the feeling of being on a mission, which is why they were able to morph from anti-capitalist peaceniks in the 60’s to greedy fucking bastards in the 80’s. Even if they were unable to articulate life’s purpose beyond a few slogans, they believed and generally still believe that life has a purpose.

Their children did not share their views. Hitting adolescence during America’s Dark Ages in the late 1970’s, then watching their parents lose their jobs in the mass layoffs of the 1980’s while the country’s leaders were telling everyone it was “Morning in America,” Generation X learned not to believe or trust in anything. They thought the whole system was bullshit. They didn’t think of themselves as special; they even failed to develop any sort of generational identity. Generation X became the anti-generation, the generation of bottled-up feelings, the generation of emptiness.

But every generation, even the unfortunate ones, has their spokesperson, and Generation X adopted Kurt Cobain as their poet laureate. Since Kurt Cobain recoiled at the very notion of being the voice of any generation, the pairing was perfect: the anti-generation crowns the reluctant hero who doesn’t want the fucking job.

It is precisely because Kurt Cobain’s lyrics make no apparent sense that they constituted the ideal message for a generation that viewed any coherent message with deep suspicion. Kurt Cobain expressed meaninglessness in the form of half-sentences, jarring word combinations, stutters and stops. He modeled the very inability to succinctly express emotion that characterized Generation X. More than anyone else, he also expressed the intense frustration that his generation felt about expressing anything tangible at all; the line, “Well, whatever, never mind” encapsulated the frustrating experience of trying to connect with other human beings better than any ode, sonnet or epic could have. Dave Grohl observed that Cobain would often dash out the lyrics to a song five minutes before recording, and that’s about all the time and energy that his co-generationists desired to put into the apparently hopeless quest for human understanding.

This is the key to grasping the significance, if not the meaning of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song unwittingly named after a deodorant. The confused and meandering lyrics of the song reflect the confused and meandering soul, searching without aim for God knows what. Far more important than the lyrics is the timbre of Kurt Cobain’s voice, one of the greatest rock voices of all time, combining elements of shyness, angst and bottled-up fury. During the verses here his voice sounds like it’s drifting, like a compass needle unable to find the magnetic pole. But when he gets to the chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” he comes at you full force with that incredible growl, exploding with all the power of a broken dam:

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto
An albino
A mosquito
My libido
Yeah

Even with the comparatively professional production of Nevermind (a classic tempest in a teapot debate), the power of that voice singes the soul. I can’t explain why in words; it just does.

More accessible to the literate listener, “In Bloom” describes the wannabes out of the scene descending on Nirvana concerts after their maiden release, Bleach:

He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means

Ah, that voice again. I love the way Cobain extends the syllable on “he’s” at the start of each chorus, holding that sandpapery voice to the note an impossibly long time without losing a single watt of power. On the downside, the song reflects a formula that dominates much of Nevermind and gets boring after a while: quiet verses followed by loud choruses. Straight from Pixies.

“Come As You Are” is one of Nirvana’s more popular songs, and it does feature both a strong melodic line and musical intensity. It also features a consistent and unfortunate motif that runs through the first three tracks: all the songs mention guns. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” opens with “Load up on guns, and bring your friends.” The gun line from “In Bloom” is noted above; in “Come As You Are” it’s “And I swear I don’t have a gun,” repeated three times. Cobain was apparently obsessed with firearms, and this feature of Nirvana’s music caused me to feel less enthusiasm than my teenage schoolmates felt about them. I could read these lyrics and think, okay, maybe he’s using the gun as a symbol of human protectiveness against real friendship and intimacy. Still, it was hard to separate any perception of the song from the fact that the guy killed himself with a gun and the cops found four more firearms in his house. Whether the imagery represented the leavings from his drug-addled, gun-obsessed, anger-polluted brain or an unconscious precursor of his demise is something for a psychologist and a psychic to figure out. I find the constant reference to guns a disturbing distraction that detracts from the music in the same way that gratuitous violence dominates many Tarantino and Coen Brothers flicks.

More focused and to the point, “Breed” allows Dave Grohl to demonstrate his power as a drummer (though not his versatility—“unnecessary frills” were frowned upon in the band’s dogma). The song itself is nihilistic and neurotic, but at least Nirvana produces a pretty strong attack here. The overrated “Lithium” follows next, a song about a guy who finds religion. The arrangement and delivery sound rushed, busy and overly tense, and the song is about a minute and a half too long. “Polly” is a first-person narrative based on a true story about a rapist who has captured a 14-year old girl (but who eventually tricks him into escaping). Though it’s hardly a pleasant topic, Cobain does a decent job of expressing the muddle inside the rapist’s sick mind. “Polly” is also one of the two acoustic songs on the album, adding some blessed variety to the mix.

By far the worst song on the album, “Territorial Pissings” makes fun of the Baby Boomers by opening with Krist Novoselic singing (badly) the chorus from Dino Valenti’s “Get Together.” While the clichéd and sappy song deserves the jeers, there’s no insight here except “we think that song was dumb.” The rest of the song is repetitive and boring nonsense. “Drain You” involves vivid imagery to describe a manipulative relationship gone bad, but the images are so disturbing they say more about Cobain’s deterioration and insecurity than anything else:

One baby to another says I’m lucky to have met you
I don’t care what you think unless it is about me
It is now my duty to completely drain you
I travel through a tube and end up in your infection
Chew your meat for you, pass it back and forth
In a passionate kiss from my mouth to yours
Sloppy lips to lips, you’re my vitamins
I like you

“Lounge Act” and “Stay Away” don’t provide much in the way of variation or interest. More insightful (in the ironic sense of the word) is the song, “On a Plain,” where Cobain’s difficulty with words is admitted and the deliberate use of obfuscation is embraced as a valid approach to poetry:

Somewhere I have heard this before
In a dream my memory has stored
As a defense I’m neutered and spayed
What the hell am I trying to say?

It is now time to make it unclear
To write off lines that don’t make sense
I love myself better than you
I know it’s wrong so what should I do?

Harmonies and background vocals make this song a tad more interesting than the previous two, but the self-absorption sours the mood.

The album closes with the funereal acoustic number, “Something in the Way,” remarkable for the stunning inclusion of cello in violation of punk-grunge dogma (Nirvana would use a cello again in “Dumb” and “All Apologies” on In Utero, those naughty boys). The lyrics in the verse describe a homeless guy living under a bridge (Cobain claimed it was his personal experience, a claim thrown into doubt by a biographer). Disconnectedly, the chorus simply repeats “something in the way” over and over again, but there’s a certain allure to the vocal and the background music that makes this piece unusually compelling. When I hear the song, I imagine Cobain looking at his life, and using his typical fragmentary form of expression, simply notes that there is “something in the way” of being who he wants to be or doing what he wants to do, but he lacks either the energy or the insight to move that obstacle out of the way. As such, it provides an appropriate epitaph to his short and painful existence.

Back in Seattle, my last stop in my U. S. existence, Kurt Cobain is still revered. I didn’t know much about Nirvana until after his death, as they hit the big-time in my pre-teens. So, both in terms of geography and generation, this San Francisco Gen Y girl is something of an outsider when it comes to Nirvana, which could contribute to my relative lack of enthusiasm. They were a phenomenon, to be sure, but I was somehow born with the gene that warns my brain to view all phenoms with skepticism. When I hear Nirvana, what I hear is a band that simply didn’t have a whole lot of room to maneuver beyond their basic sound and nihilistic philosophy, and even if Cobain had lived, Nirvana would not have lasted much longer. Dave Grohl’s talents and energy would have had to come out sooner or later, and a healthy Cobain might have explored his other artistic talents. Whatever the reason, the hourglass had already started to run out for Nirvana when Nevermind hit the stores.

They tried once more, rejecting the production values of Nevermind in an attempt to create a more raw sound for In Utero, with mixed results. Cobain’s screaming vocals would become annoying while his repressed melodic skills would provide the few highlights on the album. Novoselic’s bass certainly sounds better on In Utero, but the material itself is spotty. “Spotty” is also a good word to describe Nevermind: flashes of occasional brilliance and obvious talent are marred by confused, neurotic lyrics and the limitations of punk-grunge dogma. As a statement of rejection of the generally lifeless music people were listening to in the 1980’s, Nevermind is perfection; as a timeless work of art, it leaves much to be desired.

 

 

10 responses

  1. Reblogged this on ringingtruenet and commented:
    A fascinating and fair analysis of an album that has defied analysis.

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  2. What might escape the ears of most of those who hear this album is that it was the first HUGE record I know of to use a piece of Software called SoundTools, which became ProTools. It allowed the cutting and pasting of bits of individual tracks (some of the choruses are suspiciously similar), but also means that there is no definitive analog version of the album, because it was digitized in 16 bit and worked on with this software. In Utero, esp. the version accidentally released in Germany without sweetening overdubs on three tracks, does not have that particular quality, as Albini is an obsessive analog man.

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  3. Wow! Just wow! The level of your writing just blew me away! The ability of looking deeper into Nirvana’s lyrics is not other than enjoyable to read about. Sorry about my enthusiasm, but I have finally found a blog that hooked me. But I have to say that I acctually find “Territorial Pissings” quite enjoyable.

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    1. Thank you very much! We all have different tastes and preferences, so I’ll forgive you for “Territorial Pissings.” That’s why I’m careful not to do “best of” lists, but “favorites” lists, because who is anyone to say what’s best?

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  4. […] Nirvana, Nevermind […]

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  5. […] planning to write and publish two reviews that I’ve been dreading: Nevermind by Nirvana and Are You Experienced by The Jimi Hendrix […]

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  6. It was totally of the moment and the music industry was never the same. The indie record store would be dead and burred in relatively short order and punk rock would find it’s way to the right of the dial. Perversely appropriate for an album named after a Replacement’s song.

    The songs themselves could have been in a foreign language and the experience wouldn’t have changed much

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  7. G’day ARC, it’s Mr Smarty-Pants Dave presenting another slightly dissenting view. Maybe I was already too much of a fucked old has-been when this album came out; I don’t think so, but I don’t listen to this record much. The Nirvana album I DO really like is Unplugged, with the mighty Meat Puppets lending a hand, and the absolute killer tracks from Nirvana’s previous couple of albums re-imagined and mixed with some fabulous, brilliantly chosen covers. Well of course some boring ageing hipster is going to gravitate to a lame acoustic album, by definition I’m way too intimidated by the true scary youthful punk rock of feral Nirvana at 130 dB. Well, from the same early-mid 90s period, I absolutely loved PJ Harvey, late period Screaming Trees, Nick Cave’s unbroken 10 year run of shit hot albums, the start of Sleater-Kinney’s recording career, Sonic Youth’s breakthrough period from Sister to Experimental Jet Set; plenty of more-or-less hard rock/punk rock from then still stands up. Hopefully I’ve established that I am indeed, still one righteously groovy fucker.
    Yes, Teen Spirit is a great song, and so is the song Cobain was listening to when he came up with the riff: More Than a Feeling by those well-known underground radicals Boston.
    I feel like any young person’s death is a terrible waste and leaves behind an awful sadness; god knows enough of my own friends died way too young for me to ever trivialise it. And I’ve had a lifelong companion in Churchill’s black dog to reinforce that life can be pretty fucken bleak sometimes. But the (tragically misleading) flashes of humour in Unplugged, Cobain’s best ever singing, and the greater emotional range (not so relentlessly grim) make Unplugged a 5 star album for me.
    And when Liam Gallagher was asked for his take on Cobain’s suicide (foolish, foolish journalist!), and Liam’s response was, “Kurt Cobain was a sad cunt who couldn’t handle fame”, I knew I was gonna like Oasis better.

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    1. I was definitely more punk than grunge, and strongly Oasis when all my friends were Nirvana. Never could stand the sound of Nick Cave’s voice, so he’s a closed book to me in the same way Radiohead is (Thom Yorke’s voice drives me insane). PJ was my favorite of the early-90’s angry crowd. My teens were Oasis, Rancid, The Offspring, Swingin’ Utters . . . the 90’s punk revival.

      Having lived in Seattle for five years, I had to learn to be somewhat cautious about expressing my opinions about Cobain, as he is still revered and fans flock to his home on the anniversary of his death. My view is much closer to Liam’s, though I would add that Cobain had a great rock voice. Not as good as Liam’s, but still.

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