Staff picks: ‘Nevermind’ 25th Anniversary
On Sept. 24, 1991, three rambunctious losers from Seattle released an aggressive grunge album that would go on to replace Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” as the No. 1 record in America — thereby radically altering the trajectory of popular music forever. Twenty-five years later, Nirvana’s “Nevermind” continues to stand as one of music’s most iconic and problematic records of all time.
While none of us were alive to witness its unprecedented debut, we at Scene know a special album when we hear one. Below is our collective attempt at explaining what makes the album so significant, song by song.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Adam Ramos
In fourth grade, the song I considered my favorite transitioned from Smash Mouth’s “All Star” (thanks, “Shrek”) to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” A transition that would mark the beginning of the development of my musical palate.
I was sitting on a dusty couch with a fourth-grade pal and his cool older brother watching “classic” music videos on TV. Then, there it was, the unforgettable opening guitar riff rippling through a dusty gymnasium — I was spellbound. I had never witnessed such purgative expression presented so affably. The music, the video, it was all so abrasive, but at the same time inviting; it was frustrating but prophetic. I was startled, but I was hooked. Not long after that fateful afternoon I decided to grow my hair out and beg my parents for a drum set to smash on (I was never dexterous enough for the guitar).
My relationship with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” reflects that of the public’s following the song’s release. Prior to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the thought of an alt-rock tune reaching the Billboard top 10 was laughable. And yet, the song reached No. 6 — lifting an entire subgenre out of obscurity along with it. With its hauntingly simple pre-verse, raucous chorus and evocative vocals, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” managed to influence an entire generation while subtly mocking the very same people bolstering its acclaim.
“Smells like Teen Spirit” will forever remain one of the most stimulating songs of popular culture, and though I may have cut my hair and thrown the old drum set in storage, its presence will continue to influence the way I understand music.
“In Bloom” – Nora McGreevy
I had a suspicion, so I took a bit of a risk last night. I dove deep, into the shadowy, confusing depths of my catalog of Spotify playlists — into a folder called “old,” and then another subfolder aptly named “older,” scrolling down to the bottom of my cache of 2010 playlists. And there it was, positioned alongside the “Wicked” soundtrack and an Aly and AJ song: Nirvana’s “In Bloom.”
Aha. Thought so.
“In Bloom” is a song about outsiders. In the refrain, Cobain calls out the archetypal macho dude, a fair-weather fan. He “likes to sing along / and he likes to shoot his gun / but he don’t know what it means.” Ironically, in eighth grade, I definitely did not know what “it” meant. I liked the exhilarating up and downs, the heaviness of the guitar and the poignant melodies of the song — but as to the meaning of the lyrics, I didn’t have a clue.
Now, the brilliant subversion of the song strikes me as both hilarious and ingenious. “In Bloom” is insanely catchy, something that caught even my inexperienced 13-year-old ear. Yet Cobain subverts the accessibility of the music with poetic, critical lyrics — impishly flipping the tables on his audience in a surprising and wholly enjoyable way.
“Come As You Are” – Erin McAuliffe
I first heard “Come As You Are” playing in sync with glittering, green frog-shaped fireworks sponsored by WEBN 102.7, Cincinnati’s ROCK station. The corporation-fueled Labor Day celebration fueled my third-grade self’s basis for punk appreciation with wonder and free cotton candy.
The song begins with swirly bass — reminiscent of Morrissey — and a steady drumbeat joins in. Over an extended guitar solo, Kurt Cobain’s authoritative and raspy voice contradicts itself in orders.
“Take your time, hurry up.”
He goes on to assure that this choice is the listener’s own — only to follow that up with a reminder not be late. The contradictions continue throughout the track, mirroring society’s hypocritical requirements.
“As a trend, as a friend,” Cobain seethes at his band’s popularity while recognizing his openness to intimacy and nostalgia.
The most poignant lyrics, “Come doused in mud, soaked in bleach / As I want you to be,” encourage the listener to cover up or erase himself — essentially undermining any sense of obscure acceptance but affirming the strong theme of societal rebuttals present throughout the track.
“Lithium” – Carlos De Loera
When I first heard “Lithium,” I thought it was the best song ever. It had all the essential elements of a great song: a fantastic opening guitar riff, angst-ridden lyrics that I somehow sympathized with, a killer bass line and Dave Grohl. What made the song even better was its positioning in the album, right after the furious “Breed” and right before the reserved “Polly.” “Lithium” provided a happy medium between the two songs. Its calm verse and flowing bass mirrored that of “Polly,” while the chorus captured the loudness and anger found in “Breed.”
Ten years after first hearing “Lithium,” I no longer think it’s the best song ever, but I do believe it’s the best Nirvana song because of how classically grunge it is. Cobain used his favorite small clone chorus pedal to produce a watery guitar sound and the song’s soft to loud dynamics transition from verse to chorus influenced nearly every grunge band thereafter. The lyrics dealt with themes of religion, self-identity and unadulterated rage. “Lithium” represents what other grunge songs aspire to be — a true masterpiece.
On second thought, it still might be the best song ever.
“Polly” – Mike Donovan
I didn’t warm up to Nirvana right away. When I started exploring ’90s music, I would always gravitate toward sweeter melodies from across the pond or the soothing twang of alt-country. When friends would rave about Kurt Cobain’s genius, I’d give my obligatory agreement and say nothing more. Maybe I found his volatility a little intimidating, or maybe I was just crazy. Whatever the case, last Tuesday saw my first front-to-back listen of “Nevermind.”
“Polly,” a quiet, sedated little track tucked comfortably in the middle of the distortion-soaked chaos, caught me way off guard. Here was — dare I say — a folk song with acoustic strumming and primitive vocal melodies, on a Nirvana record no less! The gloomy nod to Dylan radiated a sense of intimacy, and it offered a welcome break from the earsplitting mayhem of its counterparts. It almost sounded pleasant.
Kurt Cobain, of course, didn’t really do pleasantry. “Polly” merely delivered his pain in a different format. The lyrics, ripped straight from Seattle’s most gruesome headlines, detail an abduction from the twisted perspective of the perpetrator. Cobain assumes the criminal’s voice to build a poetic collage of fear, agony and palpable tension. This premise, at least on the surface, struck me as excessively morbid, but I refused to give up on the track. The graphic lyricism, I decided, was an undiluted appeal to empathy. Cobain, as a man who spent his life in personal darkness, must’ve had an acute connection with the indiscriminate brutality of the world. “Polly’s” abrasive horror gives Cobain a vehicle to identify injustice exactly as he sees it, without the masks of production or grandiose.
“Territorial Pissings” – Kelly McGarry
“Nevermind” entered my life in a local pizza joint where the grade school soccer team would celebrate after a win, only as the album cover on the jukebox with the naked baby that the boys would giggle at. “Territorial Pissings” was not one of the tracks in the jukebox.
As I got older and came to understand the significance of Nirvana and “Nevermind,” I still couldn’t see the album cover without thinking about the dingy pizza place. There’s a youthful energy in “Territorial Pissings” that made it one of the most accessible songs when I first listened to the album.
“Territorial Pissings” stands out immediately because of the intro — mockingly singing the line from a popular ’60s tune, “Smile on your brother, everybody get together,” a musical representation of the culture criticized throughout the album.
In the mostly-unintelligible lyrics, Cobain repeats, “Gotta find a way, a better way.” Like The Youngbloods’ “Get Together,” it’s an idealistic notion but to a totally different end.
As a song that Cobain is known to follow by guitar-smashing, “Territorial Pissings” made sense before I could really comprehend the feeling of apathy in tracks like “Lithium” and “Polly.” The high-energy punk is still revitalizing.
“Something In The Way” – Jimmy Kemper
Oh man, what a song. What a way to end an album. After shredding our expectations of what a rock album can be for a solid 30 minutes, Cobain and company took a step back, right off a cliff and straight into the abyss. “Something In the Way” is bizarre in that it just doesn’t fit in with anything else in the record sonically. Sure, “Polly” also embraces creepy acoustic vibes, but there’s something truly haunting about this final track.
Cobain’s vocals have an incomprehensible sort of otherworldly sadness about them. The raw, apathetic crooning gives us our first taste of the bleakness that would define 1994’s “In Utero” and our best look yet at the troubled, unwilling author of a movement.
But this song is more than just a sad feeling. It’s a sick perversion of the tired old clichés of ending an album with the sensible acoustic song showing off a band’s softer side. As with everything else, Cobain had studied the rules of rock and thrown them all away, painting this image of his time as a homeless man living under a bridge in Seattle. Of course, he never actually did that, choosing instead to hop around between friends’ houses when his family kicked him out, but it’s a great bit of myth-building on Cobain’s part.
These lyrics — and the entirety of “Something in the Way,” for that matter — are just as sarcastic, revolutionary and discomforting as anything else on “Nevermind,” and a testament to the staying power of rock’s most tragic icon.