Nirvana’s Nevermind re-issued by Sony/Universal
Assessing an American pop icon
5 December 2012
In late 2011, a re-mastered edition of the seminal album Nevermind by pop-punk band Nirvana was released, marking the work’s 20th anniversary.
NevermindAt the time of its initial release in 1991, the group’s recording label Geffen Records was forced to suspend the production of all other artists on its roster to focus on meeting the demand that the album’s release, bolstered by the hit single “Smells like Teen Spirit,” had generated. As of today, the album has gone multi-platinum in over a dozen countries, as well as being certified diamond (over 10 million copies shipped) in the United States.
The re-issue of Nevermind provides the listener an opportunity to focus on some of the album’s own weaknesses and strengths, as well as the group’s enduring impact.
Nirvana—consisting of lead vocalist-guitarist Kurt Cobain (1967-1994), bass guitarist Krist (credited as Chris) Novoselic and drummer-guitarist David Grohl—emerged from the “Grunge-rock” scene, a West Coast variant of punk, which originated in Seattle, near the band’s hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, in the late 1980s. Nirvana was influenced by such groups as The Melvins and especially the American punk group, The Pixies.
Many of the band’s songs are unusually structured, consisting of moments of tense calm that give way to choruses characterized by abrasive, “grungy” vocals and musical accompaniment. Rather than being a superfluous element, this dynamic carried genuine aesthetic and emotional value, with many of these high-intensity switches feeling “of a piece” with the song as a whole, endowing it with an element of needed urgency.
Although this dynamic is often seen as encompassing the band’s overall sound, Cobain and the others possessed an undeniable ear for pop-sensible melodies. The underlying rhythm and bass sections work as a tandem in many instances, driving the music forward into Cobain’s more raucous crescendos.
This dynamic can be seen on songs such as the band’s break-out single “Smells like Teen Spirit”. “I find it hard/It’s hard to find/Oh well, whatever, never mind” goes the lyric of Cobain’s final verse. Feelings of disgust and angst at the existing world (“Here we are now, entertain us/I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now, entertain us”), feelings that clearly struck a chord with a wider audience, and a willingness to buck convention prevail throughout, as each wailed chorus strongly punctuates and underscores these sentiments. From the titling of the song to its content, “Smells…” can be seen as a reference point for many of Nirvana’s strengths and weaknesses.
The title, taken from a brand of deodorant, was reportedly given to the song because Cobain thought it had a “revolutionary” sound to it. Emerging from the West Coast American punk scene of the mid-to-late 1980s, Cobain was familiar with various forms of middle class radicalism, for a time dating feminist “riot grrl” rocker Tobi Vail. For better or worse, these influences (opposition to sexism, racism and homophobia) certainly had their place in the band’s own formation.
“In Bloom” expresses the group’s desire to distance themselves from attempts to identify their music with the mostly aggressive and hedonistic imagery found in popular culture. The song criticizes individuals who “like all our pretty songs” and “like to shoot [their] gun,” but ultimately “don’t know what it means.”
“Come As You Are” contains such lyrics as: “Come, doused in mud/Surfed in bleach/As I want you to be,” with the song’s bridge possessing the provocative refrain “And I swear that I don’t have a gun.” The song’s instrumental is perhaps the catchiest on the album, with a water-like effect placed on the electric guitar that immediately draws the listener in.
Of particular note is the song “Lithium”. Intended as a depiction of religious fundamentalism and the closed-mindedness that it breeds, Cobain scathingly sings “I’m so lonely/ But that’s okay ‘cause I share my head…And just maybe/ I’m to blame for all I’ve heard.” Cobain’s sarcasm is particularly biting here.
The use of sarcasm to depict the effects of religious “lithium” here also, however, points to a deeper cynicism, fueled by the artist’s own experience with “born-again” Christianity in his youth. As though simply reviling a thing were enough to get rid of it, the mocking perhaps makes up for a lack of clarity on the subject. Cobain fails to communicate how such a thing as religious obscurantism continues to have such a hold on social life, and why the artist himself may have fallen into its clutches at an earlier time. In general, processes and trends that disturb the artist are vividly identified, but not explored.