Nirvana - Nevermind: 30 Years of Chaos
Published on 24 September 2021
The '90s were undoubtedly one of music's most explosive eras. As the last decade before streaming and the dreaded Napster pirates (covered your ears Metallica) changed the industry forever, it was also one of the most important. DIY garage bands overtook the polished, produced metal sound of the '80s as pawn shop guitars held their own over high spec shred machines and once again, the power was in the hands of the youth. On this day in 1991, a trio of unlikely heroes released their masterpiece, slinging together chunky bass riffs with thundering drums, screeching guitar and a voice that captured the hearts of a generation of music fans... Today, Nirvana's Nevermind turns 30.
There are few modern bands who don't credit Nirvana's influence in some way or another and there are even fewer albums which are quite as flawless from front to back as Nevermind. Against all odds, producer Butch Vig harnessed the chaos of the band's sound and brought to life the perfect storm. It only seems right that we take a dive into what makes the album so special (we'll keep our clothes on though...), so turn the clocks back with us and tell your friends, grunge is back.
Smells Like Teen Spirit
Has there ever been another piece of music quite as rebellious, anthemic and downright catchy? We reckon you'd be hard pushed to find one. The opening track of Nevermind may have began as an anthem for the disenchanted but it became so successful it made Kurt Cobain himself uncomfortable. Despite its rawness, there was an undeniable if well disguised, radio friendly pop magic in amongst the track's heavy rock riffs. Inspired by Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna who wrote "Kurt Cobain Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the wall of his bedroom, Kurt - who didn't know she was referencing a deodorant brand - went on to craft something remarkable.
Coupled with its now iconic video, this is probably the best track we can think of to sum up the '90s rock scene. Cobain himself even admitted it was a Pixies knock off but really, who cares? Teen Spirit will always take us back to the first time we hit play on Nevermind and that pounding opening drum fill set the scene for one of the greatest records of all time.
As much as Kurt was hailed for his voice, his ear for melody was second to none. In Bloom, the second track on Nevermind was originally written and recorded during the band's Sub Pop era and represented a move to their more polished sound from their heavier debut album Bleach. Continuing the theme of soft, quiet, bass driven verses before stomping on the pedals and ramping up to loud screaming choruses, this is the twisted pop song we all wish we'd written.
The original features previous drummer Chad Channing and although new recruit Dave Grohl (you might have heard of him) played pretty similar parts, his relentless, heavy fills are what brings this track to life. In Bloom also features one of Kurt's finest solos, creating a feedback laden, dissonant piece of brilliance amongst its catchy melodies. Aimed at mainstream music fans and jocks who didn't understand the band's punk background, this is one of Nirvana's most clever and recognisable songs and one which still sounds as huge today as it did 30 years ago.
After the hypnotising chorus pedal laden Come As You Are, Nirvana take a break from their new found sound to plunge the listener into the nasty, fast and thrashing fourth track of the album, Breed. Now, make no mistake, this tune is heavy. One of the album’s heaviest in fact, so this seems like a good opportunity to chat about the diversity within Nevermind. Although Kurt's vision was to blend pop rock with his punk origins, the overall pace of the album varies pretty drastically.
From acoustic sections to all out fuzz, the album is a melting point of the band's influences and is a great representation of what was going on in music at the time. From its rolling snare intro to its looping bassline and fun, if slightly nonsensical lyrics, Breed was always one of the most chaotic and energetic tracks at their live shows, sending any audience into a frenzy as soon as the guitar kicked in.
What did we just say about diversity? Nevermind's most fragile moments come from the stripped back acoustic numbers, with Polly being one of the most haunting and clever. Lyricially, it deals with the kidnapping of a girl who fools her captor into letting her escape. Kurt read about a similar incident in the paper and chose to tell the story from the view of the kidnapper, which comes across as both fascinating and alarming in contrast to the soft melodies Grohl adds to the track.
In order to achieve the stripped back, gloomy sound Polly has, Kurt insisted on playing an old Stella guitar with 5 strings, which he apparently bought in a pawn shop for only $20. He didn't even change the strings before recording, which Butch Vig said "were so old they didn't have any tone to them". As always, bass player Krist Novosellic stepped in with a lovely bass riff that sits under the main melody and finishes the piece off. Despite its dark subject matter, there's something catchy about this track and that's a theme that runs throughout the album. Even in its most despairing moments, Nevermind always finds a way to hook its listener.
Nevermind may begin with what went on to become single after single, but the latter half of the album is every bit as infectious. Track number 8, Drain You, is one the record's finest moments, combining a great riff and chorus with a long drawn out, noisy instrumental section. The breakdown includes an assortment of noises (each weirder than the last), including a squeaky rubber duck toy that went on to become the cover for their Insecticide collection!
Grohl's vocal harmonies on Drain You are absolutely stunning, adding a melodic edge to Kurt's raspy voice and giving the track a really interesting and almost overwhelming sound. With layers of guitars and some incredible tones thanks to Kurt's trusty Mesa Boogie and Fender Bassman combination, this is one of the band's most satisfying tracks to learn and play. But, it didn't come easy. Throughout the album, Cobain was reluctant to overdub parts and as a result, Vig had to constantly trick him or convince him into it. His tactics varied from telling him about how John Lennon used to overdub to pretending guitars were out of tune. Managing rockstars is never straightforward...
Something In the Way
We'll end this as the album does (unless you're hanging around for Endless, Nameless of course), with the drawn out and melancholic Something in the Way. Despite its success and catchy hooks, Nevermind is by no means a cheery album. It deals with Kurt's alienation from society, issues with his family and his struggles to come to terms with his success. In its closing track he reflects back to hard times when he was younger and was on the brink of homelessness, sleeping on friends' floors, hospital waiting rooms and stairwells.
The song is about living under a bridge where Kurt and other local teens would hang out and it's an oddly sombre and downbeat note to end on, leaving the listener almost spooked by the quiet and drawn out simplicity of the song. The band struggled to lay this one down, initially trying to record the full band before Kurt eventually played it to Butch Vig in the control room to give him an idea of how it should sound. Vig was so stirred by this rendition that he turned off the air conditioner and recorded him right there, before building the rest of the band around his demo. The track uses another Stella guitar much like the one that was played on Polly, this time a slightly out of tune12 string, bringing Nevermind's two most poignant tracks full circle.
Albums like Nirvana's Nevermind don't come around every day, or indeed every decade. So many of us as guitarists grew up listening to this album, learning every riff and desperately trying to recreate the wild guitar tones. It's a gateway record for a lot of people, giving them a taste of grunge and punk that they'll never forget.
However, as much as it has been imitated over the years, it is a piece of work that is absolutely unique. No matter how hard you look, you'll never find another band who sound quite like this and for all their other albums are fantastic, Nevermind has stood the test of time as a true classic. As much as we wish we could recapture that magic, simply so we have more Nirvana to listen to, they lit the '90s on fire and nothing that powerful can last forever. Oh well, whatever... Nevermind!