The Album List #37: Nirvana “Nevermind”

Obvious. But correct.
Obvious. But correct.

This is where the phrase “No shit, Sherlock” comes into play.

This upcoming Friday, 24 September 2011, is the twentieth anniversary of the release of Nevermind. I was a fourteen year old girl listening to those famous chords opening the album and therefore having my life changed so drastically over the span of an hour. Moments like that are the ones you cannot shake. Before Nirvana came along, I was drenched in sixties pop, some odder indie rock, but mostly prisoner of the radio, which was still in rock-free hell in 1991. My obsession with R.E.M., Sonic Youth, and the Pixies was quiet, since none of my friends knew who they were. U2 got a pass because of The Joshua Tree.  But most of the kids I knew were New Kids/Mariah fans.

Nirvana changed some of us. We began wearing flannel shirts, torn jeans, Docs and unbrushed hair to school. We knew about the others, but the impact of Nirvana was clear- we were all at the time in different social groups, but we were the ones who were frustrated by the groups we were in.  We were the ones looking to get the hell out of Dodge on the backs of our talents and cleverness. I wonder if any of us succeeded.

It was an album that instantly impacted on everything. It changed what was acceptable for radio. My radio station would shortly stop being a top 40 station and become and alternative rock/indie rock station. It changed your friends. Those of us who understood it began to tentatively form new friendships, much to the dismay of the hierarchy of the school social queens. I just remember sitting in my room, listening to it, thinking that finally, there was a place for me.

The sad part is that it was so temporary. By the time I graduated from high school, Kurt Cobain was dead, the music I was listening to stopped being the cool music, the friendships fell away as everyone went off to college, and- well I became just more obsessive about music. I read somewhere once music geeks are actually addicted to music as one would be to drugs. Music plays with the pleasure centres of your brain, and you end up spending your life trying to return to the moment in your life that you are happiest. Like 24 September 1991.

But as much as I love Nirvana, and believe me, it is a lot, they still weren’t the band that completely changed my world in 1991. You’ll see later in this list other 1991 albums that made an impact. In all honesty, I hadn’t listened to Nevermind  for sixteen years until this past week. It is one of the most important records of my life, but it is not the most important, not even the most important one of 1991.

I’m not underselling the how much the record means to me, as it is one of the albums I want to listen to if I was on a desert island with no hope of rescue. But what I am saying is that I have gotten to the point, and listened to so many records in my life, that I have now realized that it has all been one insane trip and that one of the definitive, life changing albums of my life is sitting at #37 on a list of one hundred because there are thirty-six records out there that are even more important, more life changing.

It was clear to me from the beginning that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would continue to be one of my favourite songs ever. It is recognizable from the opening chord, the dissonance and feedback still twists my heart and fires me up. The soft-loud-soft dynamic Kurt created, inspired by the Pixies, was powerful and welcomed every time I heard it. It is a flawless song, a slice of sonic rage created a the beginning of an era that would scare some and inspire many. The fact that the album still sells means something. I don’t know what, but it means something.

The gun imagery of “Come As You Are” at the time was dismissed, but in the wake of Kurt’s suicide, became eerie and sad. The throat shredding of “Lithium”‘s chorus belies its melodic base. “In Bloom” is once again a Pixie-inspired pop song, and it is probably one of the poppiest things Kurt ever wrote. The dark and dangerous “Polly” was uncomfortable to listen to then, and even more so now as a mother. “On A Plain” is classic grunge riffs.  Official album closer “Something in The Way” has Kurt thinking about living under that Aberdeen bridge.

The album, though, famously ends with a hidden track, the appropriately named “Endless, Nameless”. The longest song on the album, it’s essentially noise, screaming and feedback. None of the lyrics are comprehensible, the melody is nearly non-existent as it has been deconstructed so much. It’s a completely different sound than the rest of the album, but there is a brilliance to it. This was a band in control of what they could do with noise. They could write pretty pop melodies, as Unplugged in New York would prove in the wake of Kurt’s suicide. But they loved to make us cringe with the feedback and sheer anarchy of sound.

Nirvana shone so bright for such a short time. Kurt’s death left a vacuum. Pearl Jam was unwilling to fill it, becoming more and more indie in their mindset. Soundgarden imploded. Stone Temple Pilots imploded. Sonic Youth refused to play the game. The so-called grunge movement seemed to disappear overnight, replaced by wan wannabes. Then the terrible late nineties came, with the Limp Bizkits and Britney Spears of the world, and people like me- we all went further underground. The lasting impact of “grunge” wasn’t even left by Nirvana. It was Pearl Jam who inspired terrible bands like Creed and Nickelback. Nirvana seems to be trapped in a sphere protected by time and space. No one has attempted to do what they do on a large-scale ( I am sure somewhere someone is trying to master their sound). But I have never heard anyone as of yet that makes me think that they listened to Nevermind nonstop for years.

Part of me is glad. I want Nirvana’s sound hermetically sealed away, never to be imitated or mastered by someone else. At the same time, it makes me sad, because I love them, and i miss them. Kurt’s death, though, gave me the Foo Fighter, Dave Grohls’ totally awesome band. It’s not a direct legacy, as the Foos became their own kind of awesome not dependant on the Nirvana sound.

But still- it would have been nice to see where Kurt would have gone.


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