With the 1991 album getting a full 20th Anniversary Edition reissue, Sam Shepherd recalls a time when banal circumstances were enlivened and Kurt Cobain was thrust into the limelight
Back in 1991, memories were being formed. Music, and powerful music in a particular, has a way of creating permanence in the mind and when Smells Like Teen Spirit first arrived, banal circumstances were being enlivened and cemented in the consciousness of a generation. Whether it was the continual fluctuation between the quiet introspective passages, the thunderous piling in of that overdriven bastardised Boston riff, or the image of that school gym being torn to pieces in the promotional video, Smells Like Teen Spirit represented the first rumblings of a seismic shift in music for just about everybody that heard it.
It’s easy to forget now, but in 1991 the musical landscape was ruled by the likes of the appalling rock/funk of Extreme, Guns ‘n Roses (who were expanding their self-indulgence across the double album nightmare of Use Your Illusion), and Canada’s shame, Bryan Adams. A quick scan down the list of Number 1 singles for the year shows that Michael Jackson, Hale And Pace and Bart Simpson all graced the hallowed spot at the top. Clearly something needed to happen, and with the emergence of Nirvana, it did.
In many ways, the emergence of Nirvana and Nevermind was not unlike the effect achieved by Sex Pistols when they fossilised many of the prog-rock excesses of the ’70s almost overnight. Bands like Mötley Crüe were changing their sound in an attempt to survive (or cash in), virtuoso guitar solos were dropped like they were toxic waste (they mostly were) and suddenly alternative music had made its way above ground. Kurt Cobain was suddenly thrust into the limelight as a spokesman for a generation, a position that he neither wanted nor asked for. However, when the mood took him, he took the opportunity to pave the way for other bands. Thanks to his (and the band’s) patronage, the likes of Daniel Johnson, TAD, The Raincoats, The Vaselines, Meat Puppets and for better or worse, Hole were given exposure to a wider audience.
In the wake of Nevermind the notion of DIY seemingly exploded. Fanzine culture became more prominent and politically charged music stepped out of the shadows, most notably in the form of Riot Grrrl. These cultures (little groups) had of course existed before Nirvana but now they were getting exposure and people were encouraged to create their own scenes. Despite the Slacker tag that would be lazily applied later, there was a lot of motivation created as a result of Nevermind’s impact.
With the emergence of Nevermind it was clear that Nirvana had come a long way in a short time. The influence of Melvins on the band’s sound wasn’t as prominent as it had been on their debut Bleach; instead Nirvana seemed to be channelling an idiosyncratic interpretation of Pixies. Certainly the visceral power of their music remained, but Kurt Cobain’s more melodic influences were now pushed to the fore. His description of the band as being like The Knack and The Bay City Rollers being molested by Black Flag and Black Sabbath was remarkably accurate and Kurt’s ability to write instantly catchy pop-tinged songs is ultimately what made Nevermind such a success. The harsh primal screaming of Bleach had been largely put to one side, and in its place riff after riff of infectious hooks provided the foundation. Polished by Butch Vig, and buffed further still by Andy Wallace, Nevermind sounded fuller than the band’s previous work and with less grime to wade through it was more immediately pleasing. A trade-off it might have been, but the result was an album that had more breathing space and ultimately a sound that was more radio friendly.
But it wasn’t the production that caught the imagination, it was Cobain’s songwriting. By now he’d harnessed his vocal range perfectly, drifting at will between tortured howl (Stay Away), and gentle lilting passages (Polly and Something In The Way). He seemed to be exploring an all-encompassing emotional range. Although many of the lyrics are seemingly gibberish (a result of cut-up technique) the passion he imbued these songs with struck a resonant chord. Nowhere is this more evident than Lithium, a paean to the anti-depressant. The alternation between calm resigned verses and hollered choruses is electrifying as the gap between the tortured and the euphoric is bridged in one fell swoop.
For all out aggression, the punk buzz of Territorial Pissings and the straight to the point Breed provide unadulterated blasts most reminiscent of the Bleach era whilst album closer Endless Nameless finds the band immersed fully in a blitzkrieg of cacophonous noise. However the likes of Come As You Are, and On A Plain pointed to a band more inclined to explore their sonic possibilities. Come As You Are invited the listener to unify with the band with no questions asked. Yet a threat of violence permeated its wobbly otherworldliness with Cobain promising “I don’t have a gun,” possibly with his fingers crossed. On A Plain meanwhile showed a band beginning to work more concertedly towards harmony. Dave Grohl’s backing vocals compliment Cobain’s perfectly to provide lush textures as a foil to the insistent thrum of the guitars, at times it sounds defiantly jubilant. Similarly, In Bloom presented a perfect example of building tension and releasing it. Held together in the verses by the solid drums of Grohl and the propulsive bass of Krist Novoselic it exploded into a chorus loaded with irresistible harmony.
Then there are the ballads, a direction that had only been hinted at previously on Bleach with About A Girl. Polly, a disturbing tale of rape and the determination of the victim is sparse and perfectly judged. Although told through the eyes of the rapist, it never once becomes voyeuristic. Instead the matter of fact way that the protagonist tells his story, steeped in boredom and resignation renders it all the more unsettling. Something In The Way finds Cobain practically whispering his vocal lines as the band provide a hushed atmosphere for him to inhabit. Kirk Canning’s mournful cello wraps around the vocal lines delicately increasing the fragility of the performance.
Nevermind stands as a fine musical achievement. It combines pop sensibility with punk credibility, and fragility mixes with displays of defiance. Frustration simmers and boils but there are also reminders of how joyful it can be to get lost in waves of pummelling noise. It really is a comprehensive and compelling volley of emotion.
For the 20th Anniversary there are a few additions those with deep pockets might deem worthy of exploration (the baby that graces Nervermind’s cover would have to be chasing a well stocked wallet rather than a paltry dollar to afford the full special edition). In truth, the extras are not exactly worth the price of admission but in terms of historical context there are some nice trimmings. The Smart Studio sessions are not particularly revelatory, although hearing these songs played by pre-Grohl drummer Chad Channing provides some interest. The Boombox Sessions are, as you might expect, rehearsals recorded on a boombox. Theres only so much cleaning up that can be done in a studio, so these recordings remain feral at best, but hearing a band at work and these songs in fledgling form provides some insight in to the mechanics of the outfit.
Aside from the addition of a few Peel Session tracks and a 1991 live performance from Seattles Paramount Theatre, the main draw for the Nirvana obsessive is the Devonshire Mix of the album made by Vig before it was decided to call in Andy Wallace. Cobain came to dislike Wallaces mix further down the line, stating that it sounded closer to Mötley Crüe than a punk record although he might have had a point about Wallace’s added sheen. The Devonshire Mix is actually slightly disappointing. Certainly it’s rawer in places than the mix that finally hit the shelves; Territorial Pissings in particular possesses more punk charm, whilst the discombobulated hissing and internal wrangling of Drain You is more threatening in this form. Some may prefer the absence of the bombast that Wallace bought and the more natural sound found here, but sadly there are no revelations to be found.
Regardless of whether the Special Editions represent value for money (anybody with a penchant for bootlegs will be well versed in much of the material here) Nevermind certainly deserves a reappraisal. With its release Nirvana simultaneously exploded and imploded. Thrust unexpectedly into the spotlight, they began down a road that would ultimately end in tragedy. Yet the album’s cultural significance is beyond question. Without it and Nirvana, there’s little doubt that the musical landscape of today would be significantly different. Many might prefer In Utero musically, but it is Nevermind that represented a form of year zero and a significant shift in music. In 1991 this album felt like it was heralding a revolution, and 20 years later it is still possible to hear why in these finely crafted songs.
Nirvana’s Nevermind (20th Anniversary Edition) is available as a 2-CD Deluxe Edition featuring the remastered album and B-sides, the Smart Studio sessions, boombox rehearsals and BBC sessions and is out now through UMC.