Nirvana - Nevermind
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Whose victory was this?
In 1984, Black Flag released Slip It In. In 1985, Hüsker Dü released New Day Rising. In 1987, Butthole Surfers released Locust Abortion Technician. In 1990, the Cows released the “Slap Back”/”One O’Clock High” single. Understand where I’m going with this? Kurt Cobain understood. It’s been said that he spent more time promoting other bands than his own. Kleenex/Liliput, the Vaselines, the Melvins, the Raincoats, and Daniel Johnston all benefited greatly from time spent on Cobain’s chest. Doubtless this was a helping hand from a man stunned by his sudden ascent—on the back of demographic morph—to the toast of rock. Doubtless, too, was Cobain’s malingering fear of selling out. Lest anyone else accuse him of bilking his forebears, he went on the offensive, pointing up the similarities between “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and any of the Pixies’ peak albums.
Even Nirvana’s biggest fans—and since the band has joined Radiohead as the token 90s rockcriticals, said fans are legion—admit that Nevermind wasn’t exactly cold fusion. Rolling Stone gave the record a cautiously enthusiastic three stars upon its release. The Trouser Press Guide notes that the record’s greatest legacy is as a “colonic” to the drear-nighted December of radio rock.
You’ll have to forgive me for expending so many words on the phenomenon of Nevermind, rather than the music. But that’s the mortal sin to which so many others have fallen prey. If you extricate the record from its historical context—hell, if Kurt Cobain were still alive—you’ll be left holding a pleasant shot of adrenaline.
Let’s get to the record. That iconic cover, that typically ham-fisted punk metaphor. It would be unfair to fault a record for some AmRep-type shit on the jacket, but the only thing remotely edgy about this cover is that you can see the baby’s pee-pee.
The album itself is frontloaded, like any pop record worth its salt, with the hits: “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “In Bloom,” “Come As You Are,” “Breed,” “Lithium.” “Teen Spirit” is nearly undeniable, a potent cocktail of arena-ready fatalism and deliberate jabberwocky. From the two-note guitar drift of the verses to the Butch Vig-induced smackdown of Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic’s underrated rhythm section, the track makes for heady nostalgia, if not a generational taxon. For an audience kicking against the preening of Guns ‘n’ Roses and Bon Jovi, it must’ve been an aural enema; for stalwarts of the American Underground, it was mostly the come-on of a brave new economic future. “In Bloom” proved to be the most prophetic of Kurt’s lyrics, as its perfectly deployed pedals sweeten the bizarre swipe against the more ignorant among the band’s fan base. If, famously, everyone who heard the Velvet Underground formed a band, everyone who heard Nirvana eventually sold back an Oasis album.
“Come As You Are” slows down the riff from Killing Joke’s “Eighties”—itself as good an indictment of the music industry as Nirvana’s success was supposed to be—to spooky effect. However, the second helping of the “No, I don’t have a gun” (O bitter irony!) refrain reveals this song as merely a plateau of vague gloom, wheels without the Axl. “Lithium,” with its chunky rhythm guitar, relatively ambitious melody, and self-hate chorus, fares much better.
A few of these tracks were exhumed for the on-the-whole commendable MTV Unplugged disc (helping slake the rockist demand for classically Important songs). “On a Plain” is so bright-faced in its melody, with such spectacular backing vocals, that the translation to acoustic instruments elicited no new revelations. The band dipped into genuine pop convention with its middle eight (not seen since “About a Girl”), and the song benefits from some of the album’s strongest lyrics. “My mother died every night,” Cobain mumbles with a wink, “it's safe to say: don't quote me on that.” Quite possibly, the best song on the album. The less said about the numbing “Polly,” the better. Album closer “Something in the Way,” on the other hand, is the closest thing to a revolution. Kurt’s hollowed vocal, slightly above a whisper, is inserted like a slim slow slider under the veiny rivulets of cello and acoustic strum. While Cobain’s own little work of mythology was eventually debunked (he was never truly homeless), the imagery of an alienated soul trapping pets under a bridge, guiltily eating fish, is indelible.
And as much as we’re reminded that this is a punk rock LP at its heart, it’s the punk tracks that’ve aged the worst. “Breed” and “Stay Away” are pleasant nothings, a chance for Kurt to go under the radar with his suspicions about, respectively, domesticity and the garden-variety rebellion it inevitably produces. The latter track is superior, but was even better in its previous, rawer incarnation as “Pay to Play.” “Territorial Pissings” is just that, a superfluous stab back at hardcore cred which finds Cobain lamely crooning “just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re after you.”
So there it is: a muscular distillation of indie id and punk minimalism, a good record that rode some magic confluence into world-beater status. History shows that Nirvana’s legacy was largely financial. Any of you could recite the story from memory: Nevermind dethrones Michael Jackson at Billboard’s summit; aesthetic third cousins Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, Alice in Chains et al witness stratospheric sales (well, not Mudhoney); mainstream rock music now demands the loaded idea of “authenticity;” major labels go on a shopping spree for three-chord moaners (Hello, Collective Soul! How do you do, Athanaeum! Go to hell, Local H!), “indie” music gets caught in the sucker’s cycle of the Next Nirvana.
Fascinatingly, Nirvana has spawned no imitators worthy of its original imitations. A few years back, the Vines were notoriously tabbed as “Nirvana meets the Beatles,” a classic case of subtraction-by-addition if ever there was one. Sadly, it seems that Nirvana’s loudest legacy will be the angsty post-grunge children of Lieutenant Schmidt running the mainstream rock charts. Just as pop-metal provided the perfect contrast to Cobain and Co., the millennial glut of bands like Creed, Live, and 3 Doors Down made acts like the Strokes sound like “The Black Angel’s Death Song” to corrupted ears. The cycle continues.
In the wake of Kurt Cobain’s 1994 death, the hive instinct was to raise a suicide auteur from the ashes of a dead rocker. Lyrics were injected with refracted relevance. Cobain himself got retrofitted with a Messiah complex; instead of sins, he died for our expectations. It’s grotesque, but that’s why corporate magazines still suck. The kicker is, for all the laud bestowed for dragging ‘indie’ aboveground, 1) indie (as both a set of structural decisions and an aesthetic) had been doing just fine, and 2) the trickle-down effect, breathlessly anticipated, never really occurred. Brutal Juice gets scuttled, but Velvet Revolver is hailed as an invigorating return to form.
Nevermind gave people like you and me a victory we never asked for, in a battle soon taken out of our hands. Minutemen were a victory. Pavement was a victory. Pain Teens were a victory. Hell, Big Star and Stax/Volt were victories. But who ultimately shared in Nirvana’s spoils? The Puddle of Mudd guy wearing a Minor Threat shirt? Fuse TV? Pete Doherty?