Infamously, Rolling Stone’s reviewer Ira Robbins gave this record a three star review in 1991…oops. Nevermind went on to change the world, obliterate pop music and have thousands of think pieces written about it. This begs the question, what can I possibly add to the countless gallons of ink spilled to describe this record’s greatness?
Well, that remains to be seen. What I can say is that we are thinking of doing a “top records of the 1990s” show for Jukebox, so I am prepping by doing some weekly album reviews of some of my favourite records from that era. I thought I would kick that series off in style with the record that defined a generation. More pointedly, I would never be able to sleep if I did a 1990s series and did not start with this record.
First of all, let’s get a little context. Kurt Cobain teamed up with fellow high school pal Krist Novoselic in Aberdeen, Washington with a dream to form a band. The two would hang out at Melvins concerts and talk music. Kurt loved the Pixies, punk rock and Black Sabbath, while Krist wasn’t sure he wanted to be in a band until hearing some of Kurt’s demo tapes. These demo tapes were titled Fecal Matter and Krist thought that Kurt had something and luckily for us they changed the band’s name. The problem was that they didn’t have a drummer. Krist and Cobain went through a number of drummers until they found Chad Channing. After adding Jason Everman as rhythm guitar Nirvana was born and they recorded Bleach in 1989 on Sub Pop Records.
After Bleach the band started recording some tracks with Butch Vig in Madison, Wisconsin. There was friction with Channing and he was eventually fired, or quit, depending on who you ask. Next Everman said that he was “too hungover” to record one day, so he was promptly asked to leave. This left Krist and Kurt right back to square one, two guys wanting to be in a band without a drummer. Melvins’ vocalist and lead guitar Buzz Osborne introduced Cobain to a drummer he thought would be a good fit, which was David Grohl. The three immediately clicked and went on to record Nevermind and change music forever.
The band started recording Nevermind on a budget of $65,000 and would go between studios in California and Madison, Wisconsin throughout recording. Vig convinced Cobain to layer vocal tracks on each other and overdub the guitar. Cobain was firmly against post-production work, but was persuaded when Vig told him that John Lennon recorded the same way. The band was always at odds with Vig’s production and brought in Andy Wallace, who produced Slayer, for his take on the drums and guitar. The end product was a record that he band was happy with and one accidental track that would become rock and roll lore. The hidden track Endless, Nameless was left after Something in the Way in the initial pressing without anyone catching it. Cobain was furious, but 20,000 pressings already went out, so there was nothing he could do. The result is one of the most famous hidden tracks of all time.
With all the back and forth and production conflicts, it’s amazing that we got a record at all…let alone such a masterpiece. The album cover was conceived by Cobain, while he and Grohl were watching a TV show on water births. They sent photographer Kirk Weddle to a pool to take pictures of babies and the end result was Weddle’s friend’s son Spencer Eden swimming the the pool. Spencer quickly became the most famous swimming baby in the world and the band got its cover.
With all of that out of the way, let’s look at the music. Now, to unpack every song would take the rest of the year. I mean, the record has gone 5 times platinum and still sells well to this day. So, I will focus on four key tracks that encompass the biggest hits and some of my personal favourites.
We have to start with the best opening track ever, which is Smells Like Teen Spirit. This song has been played so much that it is almost impossible to think of its influence at the time. Legend is that Katherine Hanna, lead singer for Bikini Kill, wrote “Smells like Teen Spirit” on Cobain’s wall as a joke. You see, a fellow Bikini Kill member wore Teen Spirit deodorant and liked it. So, Hanna thought it would be funny to write it on the wall and even though Cobain did not know it was a deodorant, he thought the line was cool. And here we are. Who knew Hanna’s joke would lead to one of the most important songs of all time. Kurt would end up loathing the song, because of how much it consumed the band and took all the oxygen out of their other tracks. Having said that, it fits a classic Pixies’ song structure of loud and soft versus / chorus, which gives it a great sense of drama. It is a song that defines a generation and it’s probably the best opening track of all time.
It’s difficult finding a deep track on such a well known record, but if there is one, it’s Territorial Pissings. A song about disillusionment, paranoia and rejecting corporate rock. Even though the band no longer had either Channing or Everman, this is the closest to the band’s Bleach sound. It is interesting to compare this track to Negative Creep and hear the same crunchy guitar, wall of sound structure, repetitive verses and vocal screaming. Territorial Pissings is a throwback to the low-fi rawness of Nirvana’s debut record, which is in stark contrast to the increased production on the rest of Nevermind. I think this track is a good reset for the record and a great shout out to old fans of Bleach.
Along with Smells Like Teen Spirit, one of the first songs Nirvana recorded for the album was Come As You Are. This is a departure from the beginning of the record as Cobain delves into a psychedelic guitar riff complete with dipping bass lines. Such texture to the guitar is a far cry from the rip and crunch of Smells Like Teen Spirit. However, Grohl continues to snap on the drums, which gives the track a strong backbone for Cobain’s acid infused guitar to hang off of. In subsequent interviews, Cobain stated that the song itself is comprised of a series of contradictions. For example, “doused in mud / served in bleach” or “take your time / hurry up.” Much like the lyrics, Cobain found people to be a series of contradictions and wanted to capture that in this track.
Now for my favourite track on the entire record and the one recently featured in The Batman trailer…Something in the Way. Originally, this was going to be the final track, until Endless, Nameless snuck on as a hidden track. Having an acoustic based track with strings end the record makes for interesting album construction, as Smells Like Teen Spirit is such a fire opening track. The song itself feels like a funeral procession for a dying world. I love the opening riff with the bass line. It has such a drama and foreboding vibe that really draws me in. The raw, screaming and defiant Cobain is reduced to little more than a mumble. As if the record itself has rendered him exhausted. Something in the Way shows the band’s range and foreshadows the epic success of the MTV Unplugged record.
For its cultural impact, historical importance and musical brilliance, Nevermind not only is the best record of the 1990s, but defines the decade. After 1991 pop music will never be the same again. It is hard to see records like Evil Empire, OK Computer or Blur existing without Nevermind. To put this record in perspective, it has spent 500 weeks on the Billboard top 200 and was close to a Billboard top 100 seller in….2020!!! That’s right, close to 30 years post release Nevermind just missed out on being a top 100 selling record. This is a timeless record that will continue to inspire bands for decades to come.
Listen to Nevermind