Sometimes it is tough to give the past a real hard and unforgiving look. Especially when it comes to emotionally laden and much hyped-about albums like Nevermind from the long-defunct band Nirvana. And there are emotions galore in and surrounding this album and the band itself.
On top of that, one would think that pretty much all was already said, written, or otherwise dispensed of in relation to this album. In books, films, and in endless, sometimes contradicting articles on the news or on the never-forgetting internet.
Or was it?
So, it is somewhat of a challenging task to get a few critical words out into the open that others did not yet cover ad nauseam.
I always like to call Nevermind the sneaky classic.
This is the story of a band that got to fame despite themselves. This trio of very talented musicians just went ahead and rocked their new album out to the public. As the lore goes, Nirvana never suspected that this was going to be a hit, nor did the label DGC Records. A bunch of true non-heroes, if there ever were any, getting to fame more by accident than by design.
And truly, in the beginning, the record got a somewhat lukewarm reception. Just remember the Rolling Stone article giving them a three-star rating only.
Shocking, ain’t it?
How could they! I am sure Courtney Love will still fly into a rage and Dave Grohl – in his new incarnation as a fearless Foo Fighter – should chase the writer across the golf course all over again until the terrible pond stops him.
What should the purpose be of this rant? Reason is that you – and that means all of you and me – have lost the (sacred) right to have an opinion on Nevermind. The pre-set viewpoints have turned to a point of ridiculous fanboy-ism, where the mean public and savant experts will not allow you dirty heretics to have your own say anymore.
The argument of millions of copies sold be thy cudgel to bludgeon ye mean naysayers.
Because the powers that be have stated the album is stellar, the meek followers repeated it is stellar. Plus yours truly also has a copy sitting on the mighty music shelf as well.
So, Nevermind must be stellar. Right?
I am always surprised anew by the scope and breadth of this trio – Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and Krist Novoselic – back in time. Of course, Cobain was the driving force of the outfit. The mysterious and extremely troubled individual that he was. But then look at what Dave Grohl created in the meantime with his alma mater Foo Fighters. And he apparently stated to have been plagued by second thoughts all the time during his Nirvana tenure.
And, yes, I know that we can endlessly debate on the merits and quality of the Foo Fighters’ offering, but go figure. So, in essence, a triumvirate of like-minded musicians found themselves, three pieces of a puzzle perfectly fitting together. And this was a recipe for success like there was no other.
Now, is the album stellar?
Well, stellar resides in the eyes of interpretation. If you define it with the rebellion of the early ’90s and disgust, expressed in punky fashion, then yes. Grungy Punk Rock does that to you. Musically? No apparent flaws to the songwriting, but the outcome is for sure not something that sent shivers down my spine.
Too rough-hewn, too many bare-bones without fantasy, devoid of emotions other than rage, desperation, and self-deprecation. So, no, the album is not stellar in many ways. However, it does have some sort of a magic pull that makes you go back to it.
And it surely served and still serves as a lighthouse of sorts for fans and musicians alike, a beacon to other bands to navigate further down this shoal and rock-infested passage. But never forget, a lighthouse always warns of dangers, not eternal bliss. So, have a care what path you take, musical traveler. You might not like your destination.
Interestingly, the band thought that they massaged the tracks in a way to render them palatable for the mean crowd. That they had to align their songwriting to ensure a deluge of sales or something. Gosh, it’s always great if someone has an ego like a fucking mountain range. But hey, if that’s really true, then yeah, well done. Because the result is a top-seller album. So, stellar could go here, right? Or maybe not.
And what have we got in the mighty tracklist?
Nirvana moved away from an earthy, exceedingly grungy, annoyingly scratchy, and almost stoner-esque punk rock style in their first full-length album Bleach. Instead, Nevermind spawned a mix of down-on-the-ground, rarefied Punk Rock and grunge elements. This pushed what became known as Grunge Rock to the forefront as one of the main drivers for the album.
And there’s always Cobain and his expressive voice and impressive vocal range. At one point caressing and slow, the next moment going full speed punk rock on you. Just notice the switch from the laid-back Polly to the intergalactic aggression on Territorial Pissings.
On top, their bare bone, frugal style of rock, devoid of any juicier trappings other bands like to decorate themselves with, really paved the road to success for Nevermind. This has – in a sense – become the band’s trademark and – indeed – the main strength for the album.
Never mind that the label tried to kill us all with an endless diffusion of their #1 hit Smells Like Teen Spirit on any kind of fucking TV screen they could play this clip on. My sarcastic evil twin nastily whispers that this track – and only this track – is probably THE main reason that the album got known so well. And it is also the reason why it got to be number one on the tracklist, too.
Because back in the early ’90s things were a bit more archaic than today’s sleek ways. Video clips came on in force through outlets like MTV, but no Spotify – or any internet to speak of – yet existed. Early versions of the MP3 codec only got released by 1994 and Winamp came to life in 1997. So, you did not really have an easy possibility to choose one track only. You either bought the album with the teen spirit outright or went for the single if it was available.
But wait a minute: There are other bright spots on this album too. Like the neatly executed track Lithium, hinting at mental disorders and institutions, probably fueled by Kurt’s own experiences. This track has become one of my favorites of sorts, by the way. Lithium – as a track theme – has also been covered by Amy Lee back in 2006, who also has a history of psychiatrics and the use of this type of medication. And this track can be found on Evanescence‘s cool 2006 album The Open Door.
Well, interchangeability is one of the weak points on this record. After the first three tracks, my brain usually takes a ride. The songs have this tendency to become a blur and just pass by like the window view on a high-speed train. But is it all bad, apart from two or three goodies?
No, of course not.
Take Polly for example. A pretty cool melody and a true story to boot. It is all about a 14-year-old girl who was kidnapped, raped, and tortured. Just to escape later and send her tormentor to jail. Now, the somewhat unplugged style of the track contrasts nicely with other, screamier material on the album. The lyrics would be pretty good too, were it not for the lead swallowing half of the content. And that is a problem throughout the album, by the way.
Now, in the Punk Rock department, Territorial Pissings really takes the cake. Grunginess lavishly lathered into the structure, this track really comes with all those highly aggressive trappings of a punk rock song. The somewhat scary Come as You Are and the emotional Stay Away are two more contenders for some limited stardom.
In the end, this is the work of a tormented soul.
I listened to this record a felt gazillion times looking for clues of hidden gems and vibrancy. But alas, the bare-bone rock, devoid of decoration and the raw, desperate emotion apparent on Nevermind just carry the flag. And this is no surprise, given the drug-fueled, hopeless state of mind of the songwriter and the band’s roots in punk.
And this – in turn – creates this trademark sound and the strange pull that this album became famous for. Now, to pick up on the point above: No, the record is not stellar, even with millions of copies sold. But it is not bad either. And it is certainly good in its own, dreary, and standalone way. Breaking new ground for a genre and providing guidance of sorts for generations to come. And for this I value it.
Ed’s note: Modern times, there’s a new kid on the block. Try Am Samstag.