Nevermind is one of those albums that has transcended ‘classic’ and risen more to ‘mythical’ status, helped along by the brightly burning star that was Kurt Cobain snuffing out, and retrospectively hailing this as the great mainstreaming saviour of the alternative scene. Coming to this album having heard only Nirvana’s singles, and Dave Grohl’s subsequent work with the Foo Fighters, it’s easy for me to get complacent about this driving yet highly polished face of alternative music and forget the rawer, unrefined sound of Bleach that preceded Nevermind. Nevertheless, there’s a roughness present under the polish, and Cobain’s anger is just on the right side of restrained, before it spilled out into somewhat more disturbing territory in In Utero.
As a means of blasting away the morning cobwebs, Nevermind does the trick. The punchy, relentless combination of Grohl and Novoselic’s drum and bass over the wash of distortion and growly unintelligible vocals drags the listener back to punk’s halcyon days in their own unique style. (Just in case you thought it wouldn’t come up, we might as well get Weird Al Yankovic out of the way now. Right, move along, nothing to see here.)
A song which the band grew to dislike as their ‘breakthrough’ piece opens the album, almost tailor-made for the disaffected MTV generation of the time. Smells Like Teen Spirit famously walks in the Pixies’ footsteps, with the quiet/loud garage-style dynamic and somewhat dense lyrics that even Cobain admitted he’s not sure about. One verse does stand out, however:
I’m worse at what I do best
And for this gift I feel blessed
Our little tribe has always been
And always will until the end
If this isn’t the quintessential rallying cry to the grungey alternative kids, then bleach my hair and call me Courtney. As for the apparent similarities to More Than A Feeling, it seems more of a swiftly passing resemblance if anything due to the simple four chord progression; I’d wager there’s more of Teen Spirit’s essence in Louie Louie by the Kingsmen- the slurred, barely intelligible lyrics, the angry fratboy attitude and the catchy hook are all there.
In Bloom continues the quiet/loud, and throws in overdubbed vocals (which were legendarily difficult to extract from Cobain), a clean and simple bass and drum track and a heavy dose of cynicism in the direction of the fakers in the alternative scene:
He’s the one who likes all the pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
It’s simple, it’s catchy, and it sticks in your head all day, which really should be the net result of a good punky track. Come As You Are slows the pace somewhat with that excellent ‘watery’ opening riff and great economy of lyrics:
Take your time, hurry up
The choice is yours, don’t be late
Take a rest as a friend as an old memoria
Contradictions pile up in the verses, as Cobain swears to the listener that he doesn’t have a gun; lines a tad more disconcerting after his demise, but this is a track which churns with a greater loathing for the world as a whole. Breed kicks in with feedback and ‘I don’t care’ repeated over and over; it’s more light fluff than serious introspection on Cobain’s part, but it’s bouncy and irreverent all the same.
Coming back to the more personal, Lithium bears the scars of past relationships, but mostly focuses on finding religion; playfully, the title is both a reference to the bipolar treatment and religion as ‘opium for the masses’. The contrast between quiet and loud is more marked than before, with Grohl’s easy-going verse drumming and stripped-down guitars, launching into the ‘yeah yeah yeah’ chorus where more than ever the Pixies creep out.
The only solely acoustic track, Polly is a dark tale based on a true story of a young woman’s abduction, made all the darker by Cobain’s lyrical ambiguity: one line has been variously interpreted as ‘Don’t hurt yourself’, ‘Hurt yourself’ and ‘Cut yourself’, and the victim charms her way out on a road trip (‘It amazes me, the will of instinct’). Possibly the most disturbing subject matter on Nevermind, though In Utero would go on to top that (Rape Me and so on).
Territorial Pissings rampages through with a cheeky nod towards the Ramones and other shambolic 70s outfits; it’s fast, furious and daft. By contrast, Drain You is packed with overdubbing and ambiguous lyrics which seemingly depict a frustrated love affair, but which could equally describe babies and their effects on a person. This is borne out by the bizarre interlude of squeaks and rattles caused by Cobain bringing children’s toys into the studio, but also due to dual meanings of words like these:
You’ve taught me everything
Without a poison apple
The water is so yellow, I’m a healthy student
Indebted and so grateful
Vacuum out the fluids
A possible precursor to the subject hinted at by Pennyroyal Tea?
Lounge Act comes and goes, sounding very cookie-cutter punk by Nirvana standards; Stay Away, with its whining ‘I don’t know why’ refrain and chunky rhythm section, would form the bulk of the Foo Fighters’ future (polished) sound, especially on The Colour And The Shape. Cobain returns to vaguely nonsensical lyrics for On A Plain; but coupled with some tight backing harmonies, solid wall of distortion and polished production, it shines as lost potential single-fodder. After all the snarling and yelling, the album ends on the downbeat Something In The Way. Quiet, gentle, monotonous vocals give rise to a drooping, melancholy chorus with bowed strings sagging the song to its homeless end.
While Nevermind has possibly lost some of the fire and vim of the atmosphere it was steeped in at the time, it still stands as a fine example of a totem to alternative early 90s culture, made all the more strong by Kurt Cobain’s fine, allegedly Lennonian songwriting style, but more so by the slick Butch Vig production. This is not a scuzzy, taped-in-your-mum’s-garage type of alternative album by any stretch of the imagination. But it doesn’t pretend to be, and it’s all the more appealing for it.