It’s still pretty awesome though.
Time, being linear and entirely predictable, really shouldn’t surprise us, but there are pieces of popular culture still so relevant and omnipresent today that it’s hard to understand how so much could have happened between then and now. Consider that the baby on the front of Nevermind is now in his mid-twenties. Weirder yet, can you imagine what a 49-year-old Kurt Cobain would be up to right now in a post-9/11 America plagued with fears of terrorism and Trump?
September 24 sees Nirvana’s hallmark album turn a quarter of a century old. A whole new generation is sporting Nirvana T-shirts, buying an album from a time of the Walkman and cassette, and screaming ‘entertain us’ just like their mums and dads were 25 years ago. The 1991 album for which the trio are best known still acts as an outlet for the downtrodden and disregarded, still gives hope and comfort through its resonance and simplicity, and still acts as a personal account of the biggest rock star of his time struggling to come to terms with fame and iconicity.
It’s influenced a generation, and the generation that generation produced. I’m halfway between those two generations, so it should have had a profound effect on me.
And I’m sure it has, but I feel more influenced by Nirvana as a whole rather than any particular album, and if I were to choose a Nirvana album that meant the most to me, it certainly wouldn’t be Nevermind. In fact, of their three studio albums it’s the one I like the least. I’d say even get more from the quirkiness of bits and bobs compilation Incesticide, and the melancholy and impending tragedy of the MTV Unplugged in New York live album.
“Oh, that’s such a hipster argument,” you might sneer, and you might well be right. Part of what turns me away from Nevermind is probably its popularity and, more significantly, it’s ubiquity. I’ve heard songs like ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ‘Come as You Are’, ‘Lithium’ and ‘In Bloom’ so many times, I almost feel there’s little point in listening to them unless it’s at a gig, party or some other gathering where it would be more about the community it was heard in than the song itself. These songs are so universal, there’s barely anything new I could hear or experience from an umpteen-millionth listen.
But we should distance Nevermind from its airplay-friendliness and the ‘familiarity brings comtempt’ factor that can induce, and judge it in its own rights. At the time, surely it was refreshing, exciting, daring and unifying?
Reviews of Nevermind on its release were something of a mixed bag, with some critics ignoring it altogether and others expressing indifference, or even contempt. A writer for the Boston Globe branded it “generic punk-pop” and bemoaned Cobain’s “moronic ramblings”, while The Rolling Stone only awarded it an unremarkable three out of five stars. When it became apparent how much weight its big singles were carrying among young disenfranchised listeners, publications soon backtracked on their verdicts, but we judge an album not just on its longevity but also how well it reflects the zeitgeist at the time of its release. For an album so readily associated with the MTV generation, immediate reviews (and the lack of them) suggest not everybody even noticed it, let alone connected with it.
And while Nevermind undoubtedly has classic songs, is it an album full of them? When did you last hear anyone enthusiastically talk or write about ‘Stay Away’ or ‘On A Plain’? Both are a little dull to me, especially the latter. It lacks the lyrical prowess and musical edge of most of Nirvana’s work.
Very controversially, I’m not big on album closer ‘Something In The Way’ either. Its lo-fi and Kurt-centric nature are intriguing, and the rumours of it being recorded at a time when Kurt was homeless add significance, but I can’t help but feel the song is legend over substance. I can appreciate its place in Nirvana folklore, but as a song, it doesn’t grab me. After ‘Lounge Act’, which I think is one of the album’s few underrated songs, I always tended to put the CD back in its case.
This is what moves Nevermind down the pecking order for me – it’s better tracks are overplayed, while its lesser played tracks are underwhelming. I haven’t got onto the overly polished production of the album yet, which is out of step with the energetic riffs, raw vocals and darkly insightful lyrics. Kurt himself picked up on this too in the years that followed its release, and has been quoted as describing Nevermind as “closer to a Motley Crue record than it is a punk rock record.”
The other two Nirvana albums are actually closer to what I think of as the true sound of the band. I much prefer the more visceral and macabre tones of their underappreciated debut Bleach. ‘About A Girl’ has the tenderness and intimacy of any of their best work. ‘Floyd the Barber’ – a graphic first-person, present-tense account of meeting one’s fate at the hands of a cut-throat shaver – has always intrigued me too. When I first heard it as a teenager, it freaked me out, but now I see it as carrying more of a tragi-comedy quality thanks to Kurt’s delivery, mixing suspense with the bizarre.
‘Scoff’, with its desperate refrain of ‘gimme back my alcohol’, offers a window into the addictive personally that plagued Kurt’s short live, while further memorable choruses can be found on ‘School’ (“No recess”) and ‘Swap Meet’ (“Keeps his cigarette close to his heart”). I can only imagine how thrilled and hooked I would’ve been had I heard this 1989 debut at the time of its release – and not been five years old of course!
Bleach is by no means a faultless album. The choruses of ‘School’ and “Sifting’ are very similar, there’s a cover of Shocking Blue’s ‘Love Buzz’ (although a very decent one) and the CD-only album closer ‘Big Cheese’ was apparently tagged on as a dig at Sub Pop cofounder Jonathan Poneman. As a debut though, you’d be almost disappointed if it wasn’t a bit patchy here and there, and Bleach is a fresher and more interesting listen than its follow-up in my opinion.
While calling Bleach a ‘classic’ would be pushing it, Nirvana’s third and final album In Utero is more than worthy off that label. Compared to Nevermind, I find it much more aggressive, much more personal, much more ‘Nirvana’.
The lyrics are excruciatingly bleak, yet drily witty (‘I miss the comfort in being sad’ being a personal favourite). The rawness of the opening two tracks, helped in no small part by the legendary production of Steve Albini, hits you like a pneumatic drill. The despair and weariness of tracks like ‘Dumb’ and ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ gain a haunting dimension from knowing how the story ended. ‘Rape Me’, meanwhile, has the rare quality of seeming more shocking in these more sensitive times than it may have done in the mid-90s.
It might be fair to say that while Nevermind has the best songs, In Utero is the best album. Even so, ‘All Apologies’ sees Nirvana’s best ballad since ‘About A Girl’, and I’ve always loved ‘Milk It’ with its riff that sounds like it’s going to blow your speakers to pieces and the drums that throb like a heart finding each beat more painful than the last.
As far as radio-friendliness goes, few realise that Nirvana’s highest charting single in the UK was not ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, but ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, which reached No. 5. That’s right – in 2016, No. 5 in the charts is usually Justin Bieber’s third most popular song of the week. In 1993, it was a slow-burning, descending grunge anthem featuring the line “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black.”
I often wonder how much of Nevermind’s mystique is held in its iconic album cover, and how many of the people who rave about have ever investigated it beyond knowing the singles and recognising its artwork. What if In Utero had had that cover? You could argue it’s more suited to the album’s title, and would be more of a final verdict on America from Kurt before his untimely departure from the world the following year.
In any case (pardon the pun), I suppose what I’m trying to do here is no so much criticise Nevermind as promote the rest of their body of work. Nevermind is a great starting point, but fans who don’t give their other albums the time they deserve are really missing out. There’s a lot on them that Nevermind just doesn’t have, and I’m not just trying to be contrary when I say that it’s the worst, or perhaps ‘least good’, Nirvana album. I can’t help feeling that way, and while I know it’s a viewpoint that only sets me up for becoming unpopular, that’s the risk I take by being an opinionated music lover. Oh well, whatever, nevermind.
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