Nirvana – Nevermind 20 Year Anniversary

22 Sep
Nirvana

Oh Krist, little do you know that you will be bald and beardy in 2011

Twenty years. Two motherfucking decades.

It’s hard to get my head around the fact I have spunked a fifth of a century up against the wall of the universe since freaking out to Nirvana Nevermind for the first time as a geeky thir-teen.

Twenty is a circular number (well it’s got a zero in it and a two is pretty curly so bear with me).

In the 20 years since Nevermind, my tastes and life have come full circle.

An introspective loner into loud guitars I began and here I am again. The intervening journey into bass music and loved-up extraversion feels more like a dream with every passing year.

Like all the best cliches, it’s true: 1991 was a different world.

No internet, no blogs, no Spotify or Mediafire. Just your local record store (Bridge Records, Walsall, for me), magazines, a little graveyard shift TV and word of mouth.

Nirvana blew our tiny minds and kicked off the doors to the underground.

I clearly remember the buzz in school assembly the night after Smells Like Teen Spirit aired for the first time on late night rock video show Raw Power.

Everyone was talking about it. From the fey indie boys to the metalheads, the goths and the punks, our collective consciousness in febrile disarray.

Nirvana Nevermind

Oi, see these teeth? They'll be in the Foo Fighters one day, mark my words son.

I became obsessed with Nirvana, which manifested itself in various material ways:

  • Assorted shirts (including one tie-dye abomination)
  • One cap (black cordurouy)
  • Every album
  • Various twelve and seven inch singles
  • Any live bootleg I could get my hands on.

I even had a ticket to see them on the ill-fated 1994 tour that got first postponed due to Cobain’s Rome overdose then cancelled following his suicide.

Yet as Cobain’s death cult grew, my interest waned. I’ve barely listened to Nevermind in 17 years.

So, I thought it would be fun (for me, anyway) to do a track-by-track to see how well it stands up today. No cheap iconoclasm, just an honest view.

Smells Like Teen Spirit

The first thing that strikes me is that you can really hear the bass. I’d also forgotten how sparse the verses were – the riffs are barely there really.

The rhythm section impresses much more than Cobain’s guitar work. It’s Dave Grohl’s drumming that gives the chorus its crashing intensity.

The song is very simplistic but feels very intimate and close-up.

I do love how a song that fades out with repeated screams of “a denial” could be such a major hit.

In Bloom

The focus may always on be on the martyred frontman but yet again this song reminds me of how as an aspiring bass player I loved the simple, hooky playing of Novoselic combined with Grohl’s pounding drums.

This is very similar structurally to SLTS. It’s also more dirgey than I remember with its moaning bassline and rather atonal solo.

Come As You Are

This is one of the first things I ever learned on bass.

There is a really nice phased guitar section that shifts and swirls across the stereo field.  I don’t remember that detail from contemporary listens , I was more focused on basslines, melodies and the words.

I listen to music differently now and on better quality equipment. Sennheiser cans instead of a cheap walkman knock-off or even the ultra-tinny mono tape player I used to load computer games in BASIC days!

mono cassette player

This was my "boombox", audiophiles eat your heart out!

Breed

Hey, I really like the intro riffs to this: bouncy, punky, fast. I didn’t care much for this at the time but now it feels fun, if a little simplistic (a recurring theme).

While the song is punky and hard-edged, the guitar tone is a bit thin. Squalls of noise are pierced with feedback for sure but the sound lacks density.

Only the bass makes this heavy in any way.

Lithium

I used to throw myself around to this song. That’s hard to believe now as it seems a little tame.

The thrashy “yeah, yeah” bits remain infectious, even if it does seem to be the glazed rage of someone medicated.

Such poppy little melodies – Nirvana were really very good at writing catchy tunes when it suited them.

Polly

I never really liked the song then and I still think it’s a bit pointless.

“It amazes me the width of this thing” – misheard lyric. I thought it was a sexual reference.

I don’t want to know the real words, mine are better.

Territorial Pissings

I found this a little alienating at the time. Now, I really wish the guitar tone had more balls! It’s hard to make out what he’s playing half the time.

The music is quite minimal in many ways. It’s a song that defies engagement and presages future musical tantrums Tourettes, Radio Friendly Music Shifter et al.

Drain You

This is probably Cobain’s finest vocal performance. It’s simultaneously hooky yet wilfully obscure both in lyrical content and delivery.

I couldn’t work out half the words then and still can’t parse 50% of the lyrics, yet you hum and mumble along regardless.

This is probably the best track on the album. It certainly has the most interesting structure with the echoey breakdown in the middle, laced with feedback and screams.

Drain You actually has some substance. I am definitely enjoying this one for its own sake rather than sucking on the dried up juices of pleasures past.

Lounge Act

I still remember all the words! I had completely forgotten how much I was into this as a 13-year-old.

It’s so simple yet effective how the verses repeat, each time more crazed than the last until an unhinged-sounding Cobain is barely enunciated the words at all and just biting them off.

Stay Away

I love the double-time crescendo intro. In fact 20 years on, the second side of Nevermind is proving vastly more interesting than side one.

The hits seem thin and predictable while the album tracks are full of piss and vinegar.

On-off squalls of guitar noise are sweetened by a bass line that’s pure pop gold.

The trio all seem to be playing as fast they possible can and having a ball doing so. Tumbleweeds of bass disrtortion roll by at the end.

On a Plain

Very radio-friendly (with the 60s pop ooh-oohs and the vocal harmonies) although it’s quite druggy and hazy.

Something in the Way

I thought this rather profound in 1991.

In 2011, I think it’s largely turgid during the verses and only partially saved by a touching and diverting chorus. It’s a downright peculiar way to close an album.

Endless, Nameless

Confession time. I never actually got to hear this hidden track as I had the tape not the CD.

I just Youtubed it for the first time. Wowsers – it’s bonkers. Death growl plus Sonic Youth guitar feedback mess.

It’s pretty bad but also listenable in an unlistenable way, the way the Melvins are when they are being abrasive rather than super-sludgey.

So that’s it. I don’t have some cute way of wrapping this up. How an odd duck like Nevermind tipped the world upside down, I don’t know. Sure, it’s poppy but it’s also pretty off-beat, noisy and weird in places.

When it comes to the Nirvana legacy, everyone focuses on Cobain, his angst-ridden lyrics and the hits.

Yet it’s what’s in the shadows, the non-singles, Nirvana’s great pop-punk rhythm section and Butch Vig’s mix that most grab my attention 20 years later.

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