Nirvana - Nevermind

by John Plowright Rating:10 Release Date:1991-09-24
Nirvana - Nevermind
Nirvana - Nevermind

With the notable exception of the Godfather trilogy, three seems to be a magic number.

Consider the evidence: Goldilocks and the three bears; the three Billy Goats Gruff; three blind mice; the three little pigs; three little kittens that lost their mittens; the three wise monkeys; the three wise men; the Three Musketeers; three Bronte sisters; three coins in a fountain; the three Rs; Newton’s three Laws of Motion; three cheers; three strikes and you're out; three Life-lines on ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’; Faith, Hope and Charity; Rock, Paper, Scissors; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; Snap, Crackle and Pop; Rumplestiltskin giving the miller's daughter three days to guess his name; the three times Peter denied Christ; Jesus rising on the third day; the three witches in Macbeth; the Third Man; the Three Stooges; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; Harry, Hermione and Ron; and so the list goes on.

Three certainly seems to be a magical number in popular music if you think of the success of The Jimi Hendrix Experience; Cream; Emerson, Lake and Palmer; The Jam; and The Police.

This is not an infallible rule – and not just because of The Thompson Twins. Nirvana’s sophomore release, ‘Bleach’, which was released in June 1989, performed creditably but it was not until 1991’s ‘Nevermind’ that they really hit gold or, to be more precise triple-platinum.

What made ‘Nevermind’ a classic?

It might conceivably have something to do with the fact that between 1989 and 1991 Nirvana changed from an indie to a major label (from Sub Pop to David Geffen's DGC label, a subsidiary of MCA) and also changed personnel, with world-class rock drummer David Grohl joining Aberdeen, Washington childhood friends Krist Novoselic and Kurt Cobain (although former drummer Cobain was apparently never wholly disabused of the notion that he could drum better).

Some credit should certainly accrue to producer Butch Vig, whom Kurt later praised as “the king of low end”, understanding “how to put a lot of low end in the recording without making it too distorted”, although Vig was actually the group’s third choice of producer, after Scott Litt and Don Dixon.

There are also those who will claim that the phenomenal success of ‘Nevermind’ relates to its having captured the Zeitgeist. Which always sounds impressive until pressure is applied to explain precisely what that means.

The fundamental reason why ‘Nevermind’ is a classic album is because between 1989 and 1991 Cobain refined his already considerable song-writing talents to produce music that was increasingly self-assured and accessibly contagious. The 1990 single ‘Sliver’ (later included on ‘Insecticide’) pointed the way but the full extent of the quantum leap made by Nirvana is most evident in ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, the opening track on ‘Nevermind’ and the only song on the album to be credited to all three band members (some consolation to Novoselic and Grohl when, in 1992, Cobain tore up the equal three-way split of everything in favour of his receiving 75 per cent of the song-writing royalties backdated to ‘Nevermind’).

‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is the song above all the others on the album which commentators like to cite when claiming Cobain as spokesman for his generation, with lines like "Here we are now, entertain us” and "I found it hard, it’s hard to find/Oh well, whatever, never mind" supposedly reflecting youthful passivity and despondency. For his part Cobain said that it was “mainly just me dealing with my own apathy rather than attacking my generation and accusing them of being apathetic” and the song’s appeal lies in its yo-yoing between intense rage and resignation. It is the age-old refrain (since at least the 1950s) of angry young men who are not entirely clear about the reasons for their dissatisfaction and who feel that they themselves are at least partly at fault. This strain of self-loathing (“I feel stupid and contagious”) also surfaces on ‘Lithium’ ("I'm so ugly") and indeed gnaws its way throughout Cobain’s work.

‘In Bloom’ in intent somewhat resembles Syd Barrett’s ‘Have You Got It Yet?’, which consisted of a complex and ever-changing set of chords, around which Syd would repeatedly sing "Have You Got It Yet?" as his band-mates consistently failed to do so. If they got the joke they certainly didn’t like it as they parted company with Syd shortly thereafter.

The joke underlying ‘In Bloom’ is that the meaning of the verses are wilfully opaque but they’re accompanied by the most gloriously singalong extended chorus which mocks the way in which the undiscerning listener “likes all our pretty songs/And he/Likes to sing along/… But he don't know what it means". It is a rare example of Cobain’s sense of humour and also points to his ambivalent attitude towards commercial success – he wants more people to listen to his music but realizes that this means that the kind of macho rednecks he despised in his childhood will be amongst those jumping on the Nirvana bandwagon. This song allows Kurt to have the last laugh on those who used to laugh at him and make him feel an outcast.

‘Come As You Are’ is a song about acceptance of the outcast. From the time of his parents’ divorce Cobain felt increasingly alienated and unable to express himself effectively except through his music which even then is a thing of inchoate moods and contradictory lyrics (“As a friend, as an old enemy/Take your time, hurry up”. Some think ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ resembles Boston’s ‘More Than a Feeling’ – something to which Nirvana themselves alluded in their 1992 performance at Reading – but ‘Come As You Are’ owes a much more obvious debt musically to Killing Joke’s ‘Eighties’. Shakespeare ‘borrowed’ and transcended his original source materials and such is the case with Cobain here.

The pace picks up again with the frantic and nihilistic ‘Breed’. In its original incarnation the song was entitled ‘Imodium’, which means that in the end ‘Lithium’ is the only ‘Nevermind’ song title to refer to a medication. ‘Lithium’ is about turning to religion from a state of depression (“Light my candles in a daze/’Cause I’ve found god) and why this offers only illusory comfort (“I’ve found my friends/They’re in my head”) leavened by guilt (“And just maybe I’m to blame for all I’ve heard”) and unnatural self-denial (“I’m so horny but that’s okay/My will is good”).

According to Cobain himself, the acoustic ‘Polly’ (with an uncredited Chad Channing on drums) is an anti-rape song about a rapist whose bound victim, the eponymous Polly, develops a relationship with her attacker. The lyrics make it unclear whether this is an expression of Stockholm syndrome or a ploy to effect her escape. What is clear from the song is Cobain’s willingness to explore the darkest side of human nature and his psychological acuity as shown, for example, by the rapist’s doublethink - both dissociating himself from his actions (“It isn’t me”) and claiming his actions have somehow been honourable (“I promise you/I have been true”).

‘Territorial Pissings’ (co-written with Chet Powers), sees Nirvana return to frenetic mode and Cobain revisiting the days when he “was an alien”ated youth desperately seeking survival strategies in an ultra-macho culture (“Never met a wise man/If so it’s a woman”). This is also the track where Cobain’s screaming vocals reach their zenith.

‘Drain You’ is chiefly remarkable for containing the cleverest wordplay on the entire album (“With eyes so dilated I’ve become your pupil”) and because the song’s instrumental middle section briefly sounds like a homage to early Pink Floyd.

Novoselic has admitted the influence of Klassje van der Wal (of Dutch band Shocking Blue) on the prominent bass line of ‘Lounge Act’, which is probably the most straightforward song on ‘Nevermind’, lyrically if not musically, dealing with suspected betrayal (“I’ll keep fighting jealousy/Until it’s fucking gone”).

‘Stay Away’ (originally entitled 'Pay To Play') tears along at break-neck pace which makes its choking ending all the more effective and sets the scene for ‘On a Plain’ which slowly revs up to challenge the listener to make sense of what they’re hearing: “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?” As a piece of self-conscious song-writing it’s a distant cousin to ‘Your Song’ by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, with ‘On a Plain’ as pained and unresolved as ‘Your Song’ is affirming.

‘Something in the Way’ is a rarity in that it relates to an identifiable experience in Kurt’s life, namely, the time he spent sleeping rough under the Wishkah River bridge in Aberdeen. Cobain for once forsakes screaming and instead his mournful dirge-like voice is beautifully complemented by melancholy cellos to paint a picture not of romantic vagrancy so much as near suicidal despair, with the unlisted ‘Endless/Nameless’, after a long pause, providing a blistering, raging and pained coda.

What is the secret of ‘Nevermind’s success, allowing the album to sell millions without the band appearing to sell out? A lot of it has to do with Nirvana’s ability on ‘Nevermind’ to combine elements that seem diametrically opposed: hard rock and slick production (glossy grunge); power chords and melodic tenderness; rage and apathy; communicating feeling despite apparent inarticulacy. The lyrics themselves are a catalogue of paired opposites: “It’s safe to say, don't quote me on that”; “Stay, stay away”; “I’m worse at what I do best”, and so on.

Indeed, when considering the power of three, one should not underestimate the trio of thesis-antithesis-synthesis for that’s ultimately why ‘Nevermind’ is a classic album; it represents the perfect synthesis of the seemingly irreconcilable both lyrically and musically and - oh yes - it also boasts a classic cover.

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