Nirvana - Nevermind
It was About A Girl.
Several posthumous releases have already gathered the bulk of Nirvana’s previously unreleased studio recordings, yet the 20th anniversary of the band’s breakthrough second album provides yet another opportunity to re-open the vaults for this deluxe re-issue. The roots of the album are reasonably well-documented here: Nirvana demo-ed some of the album material as early as the Autumn of 1989, but Kurt Cobain truly found his muse when he began a brief relationship with local musician and activist Tobi Vail, who would later go on to drum with Bikini Kill. For Cobain, Vail opened the door to the cooler kids of the Olympia-based K records and an underground music that seemed initially liberating compared to the more macho local punk and metal scenes he had grown up around. Ultimately, he would dismiss the culture of both as he wrestled with the contradictions of fame, but it was against this background that he entered the most creatively productive period of his career.
The core of Nevermind is a conversation, a back and forth (“From my mouth to yours”) between Cobain and the “over-bored and self-assured” Vail - the self-styled “King and Queen of the outlaw teens” in Cobain’s original draft of the breakthrough hit and album opener, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. The track itself, with its brooding, restless Pixies-like bassline found its title when another future Bikini Kill-er Kathleen Hanna graffiti-ed the phrase on a store wall, teasing that Cobain smelled of Vail’s deodorant. Its author would begin to resent the song within months of it taking over the airwaves, yet it remains a landmark release. Near-constant music channel rotation ever since (aided by a still-thrilling promo video) fails to tarnish its essential rock credentials: catchy hooks; atmosphere; boredom; tension; incomprehensibility; frustration and ultimate release. Good enough to be parodied by Weird 'Al' Jankovic, ‘...Teen Spirit’ sits comfortably alongside the likes of ‘Helter Skelter’, ‘Paranoid’ or ‘God Save The Queen’ in the rock music annals, but its success caught both the band and the industry by surprise; the resultant fallout, ultimately, leading to Cobain's tragic end.
B-side ‘Aneurysm’, recorded three months before the album sessions proper - and the perfect distillation of the band’s sometime quiet-loud aesthetic - was explicit when it came to Cobain’s infatuation: “Love you so much it makes me sick”, yet his usual stream-of-consciousness, cut ‘n paste lyrical formula failed to hide the extent of his emotional entanglement. For ‘Lounge Act’, Cobain refined the lyrics from the (bedwetting!) original, “And I got this dream / Where I have a girl like you” to “And I've got this friend, you see / Who makes me feel”, the song documenting his journey from fantasist to someone whose slumbering emotions have finally been awakened. His morbid fascination with bodily processes seeps into the realms of the twisted love song in ‘Drain You’, Vail the teacher (“You've taught me everything / Without a poison apple”) with Cobain on his knees, her dilated pupil (“Indebted and so grateful”). ‘Breed’ touched on Vail’s thoughts on their future (“We don't have to breed / We can plant a house / We can build a tree”) although 'Lounge Act' features a concerned Cobain ("I can't let you smother me,") and it was, reportedly, he who ended the brief affair. Cobain would later dismiss Vail's claim that she had inspired much of his post-romance material. Nevertheless, Vail's scent is all over the album.
Cobain’s lyrical abilities could be somewhat hit or miss. The controversial release of his diaries and notebooks exposed the sometimes clunky nature of much of what he wrote; scribbled last minute additions during recording often erasing some of his more juvenile fascinations. In the so-called ‘Boombox’ rehearsal version of the thrashy ‘Territorial Pissings’ included on this set, he screams “Kill everyone!” like a cookie-cutter parody of the alienated backwoods punk he was sometimes caricatured as; album-closer ‘Something In The Way’ loses an original, more upbeat concluding verse by the recording session proper. Like John Lennon before him, Cobain was often a contrary figure - the slapdash nature of some of his lyrics at odds with the time and effort he put into his art, or his complaints about the listeners who “... like all the pretty songs / But he knows not what it means.”
Musically, Nevermind abandoned the sludgy, Melvins-inspired sound of their debut for something much more melodic. Cobain generally sat his lyrics over memorable riffs: there was a Nirvana formula by this stage, settling upon a set of songwriting tricks and chord patterns. The circular, quirky chord sequence of 'Lithium' is typical, while ‘Polly’'s four basic verse chords disguise the unequivocally Cobain-esque way they are played, meaning when others tried to ape the sound (step forward Bush) it immediately sounded like cheap parody. Aided by Krist Novoselic's tuneful bass underpinnings and new guy Dave Grohl's Bonham-style drumming, Nevermind gave a new sheen to the notion of power trio.
Ignoring the ludicrously overpriced ‘super-deluxe’ set, which includes a third disc of early mixes of the album proper, a live CD which duplicates the soundtrack of a live DVD (which itself is available separately), the standard 2-CD set is a slightly haphazard collection of the commonplace, the heavily bootlegged and a few nuggets to satiate the hardcore collector. Some will be disappointed that there are no outtakes from the actual album recording sessions themselves; and while it is good to see a handful of previously uncompiled radio and demo session tracks finally unearthed, it leaves the band’s back catalogue frustratingly scattered across a multitude of albums rather than offering a definitive listening experience.
Nevermind was not Nirvana’s best work. That was to come, with the melodic squall of In Utero (some of which Cobain had already written at the time of Nevermind), and the last gasp of their Unplugged performance. But it was their defining release. Was it mainstream rock music’s last significant yelp, an album that successfully crossed over from the underground to traditional rock fans and, much to Cobain’s ultimate discomfort, the ordinary man in the street? Certainly, little else has come close in the 20 years since to replicating its wider cultural impact. Explained at the time as the guttural scream of a slacker generation it was, perhaps, more of a classic rock album than it seemed, inspired - as so many are - by a simple affair of the heart.
(Thanks to Daniel Caux for providing the inspiration for this review.)