“I remember watching Kurt come through and thinking, ‘God, this music is nuclear. This is really splitting the atom.’ They raised the temperature for everybody. Manufactured pop never looked so cold as when that heat was around. Nirvana made everything else look silly.” -Bono of U2
“I’d rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not” -Kurt Cobain
Each album I have discussed so far was something of culmination of their decade and, as such, came in the back half of the decade. The following blog isn’t about an album like that. Nirvana’s landmark record Nevermind was, and is, of a different kind of power. Released in September of 1991, Nevermind shaped the entirety of the remainder of the decade, defining what the 90’s would be in 1 fell swoop. And now, I have put it on myself to break that down.
By the end of the 80’s the pendulum of pop culture was beginning to swing back. Things may have gotten a little out of hand, especially in the music world. The face of Rock and Roll was now hair metal, often packed to the gills with overlong solos, ridiculous outfits, and almost totally devoid of meaning or substance. The spectacle and franchise films of the 80’s were replaced by the works of emerging filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, and Quentin Tarantino while Spielberg went from making Gremlins to Schindler’s List. Hair got shorter and greasier, colorful clothes were replaced by blacks and whites, and sick became the new radical. Playtime was over, it was time to get serious. During the late 80’s, unrest toward the current state of popular culture, especially music, was building in basements across the American Northwest. Punk rock and metal were mixing together, stirred by a spoon made of the angst of the youth. Before anyone knew it, there was an underground scene of this new style floating around. It was a humble beginning, but the seeds were sewn for a new kind of rock, and it went by the name grunge.
A few guys from Aberdeen, Washington shared a love for this new style and came together to make a little band. They worked for a few years before getting a record deal and releasing an album called Bleach in 1990. Bleach wasn’t a failure, but it wasn’t earth shaking either. After about a year they released the first single from what would be their sophomore album. Nearly overnight hair metal was dethroned and grunge music was playing loud on speakers all over the country. Those guys went by the name Nirvana, that song was called “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and the album would be titled Nevermind.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” may have been the catalyst that caused the music industry in the 90’s to become more serious, or it may have just been the straw that broke the camel’s back, but either way it is one hell of a song. “Teen Spirit” is absolutely iconic, undeniably powerful, and deceptively simple. It’s structure and composition are fairly basic and the lyrics are more or less unintelligible. It doesn’t matter what lead singer Kurt Cobain is saying, it only matters how it makes you feel. “Teen Spirit” puts itself among some of the great, mysterious, songs of rock. Much like “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Stairway to Heaven”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and “Hotel California”, among others, the words of “Teen Spirit” don’t really mean anything, but can have the potential to mean anything. What “Teen Spirit” is about is up to the listener to decide, or rather, feel. “Teen Spirit” perfectly captures everything that grunge is about. It is a song that demands to be played loud and is meant to be felt rather than listened to. It draws out the deeper parts of the listener’s subconscious with its primal nature and, for 5 minutes, makes you feel like thrashing something whether you like it or not. One of the genius things about this song, and much of Nirvana’s discography, is the way that it uses dynamic contrast. Yes the chorus is loud and aggressive, but its verses are not. Much like a good action movie develops itself and draws you in to make the fight sequences more meaningful, Nirvana throws you into it before letting the song breathe a little bit, draws you in with simple but appealing songwriting, build tension, and then lets it rip with a thunderous chorus. “Teen Spirit” was a massive success and it really put Nirvana, and grunge as whole, on the map, but the grunge power trio was only getting started. Sure everybody liked “Teen Spirit”, but nobody could’ve predicted how good the rest of the album would be.
Dave Grohl is an excellent drummer and Krist Novoselic is a great bassist, but the creative force that drives Nevermind and makes it a masterpiece comes from the tragic front man Kurt Cobain. Cobain’s story is one that most know, regardless of whether or not they listen to Nirvana. The tortured genius who took his own life at the young age of 27, Cobain’s life was hardly a fairytale, but in his short time on this planet he sure did make some great music. Cobain was always primarily focused on the music, letting the lyrics come second. This is clear on songs like “Teen Spirit”, “Come As You Are”, and especially on “I’m On a Plain” which Cobain would later recall writing the words for only moments before recording it. Cobain’s songwriting procrastination didn’t get in the way when he really wanted the lyrics of a song to convey a message. Cobain loved wordplay and clever double meanings which make songs like “Breed”, “Territorial Pissings”, and “Drain You” shine. Cobain’s own experiences, beliefs, and feelings would find their way into most songs on the album as well, calling out people who listen to songs without really paying attention to them on “In Bloom”, reflecting on a broken relationship on “Lounge Act”, and of course, expressing his feminism through the disturbing “Polly”. Every piece of this album is a vehicle for emotional catharsis for Cobain and his bandmates. Such catharsis stemming from the darker side of the emotional spectrum was rare in the 80’s, making Nevermind‘s potent anger, sadness, regret, and frustration land all the harder. Much like Nirvana’s use of contrast to make the loud feel louder and the angry feel angrier, the contrast between the pop and hair metal of the late 80’s and Nirvana’s grunge made Nirvana feel all the more polarizing. The thing that made it so universal despite this is that everybody has these emotions. Few of us have suffered like Cobain did, but that doesn’t make Nevermind any less relatable.
Nevermind was, and is, more than just a good album. It brought a niche and underground style of music to the masses, completely overthrowing the commercial and artistic merits of most of the pop music of the early 90’s. For the rest of the decade, musicians scrambled to become the next Nirvana, the next Cobain, while Cobain wished to be free of his burdens. It set the stage for countless contemporary grunge and punk groups to find success, and before anyone knew it grunge was the go to method for artistic rock experiences. All the while, hip-hop music was steadily on the upswing in both quality and popularity, and although it may be a stretch, I would guess that Nirvana had some influence on the likes of Biggie, Tupac, Nas, and the other great rappers of the time.
Unlike many genre defining works, Nevermind has aged flawlessly, providing an artistic experience just as powerful today as it was on the day it was released (I assume). There is so much that has been said about this album, so much that I can say about it, so much that should be said about it, but I think it’s time I give up. Just like every album I have written about or will ever write about, there’s no way I could hope to do it justice.
Just go listen to it, it’ll tell you far more than I could ever hope to.
Rest in peace, Kurt Cobain.
Here we go, into the decade I was born in!