Albums Revisited: Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ Turns 25: celebrating Nirvana’s generation defining album on its 25th anniversary.
I’ll never forget the fall of 1991. I had recently transferred to a new college. It was out-of-state and I didn’t know a soul. It was terrifying, but also liberating: I was far away from my folks and anyone who knew me in-depth. I could start over. Reinvent myself. Loosen up and try new stuff.
Before internet and social media, meeting new people required a little more effort. And one way to make friends, was through music. Music was the social currency of the 90s, perhaps more than other decade besides the 60s.
I was into alternative, New Wave, Goth, Metal, Industrial…anything that was left-of-center, but not so much so that hooks or melody were absent. So I made some new friends, largely on similar musical tastes.
And one day a friend asked if I’d heard Nirvana? No I said, but Nirvana was one of my favorite songs off The Cult’s Love. A band I was obsessed with. So my curiosity was piqued enough to check it out.
He’d just bought Nevermind (which celebrates its 25th anniversary on September 24th). He made me a tape: Nevermind on one side: Smashing Pumpkins Gish on the other. My life would never be the same. But it wasn’t an instantaneous feeling. I just thought it was really good rock. They seemed accessible enough to obtain a Pixies-like level of success. But I couldn’t stop playing it. I knew it was special. But it was still under the radar.
A week later my newfound friends and I are watching 120 Minutes in our dorm room lobby, when the video for Smells Like Teen Spirit popped up on the TV. All of a sudden, it hit me: this…felt important. The imagery was perfect for the sound. The group weren’t fashion plates: the sound was well produced but raw. We all felt something. This was meant for more than college radio.
The rest is history: multi-million dollar copies sold, handful of instantly iconic singles. After the past few years of flaccid cock rock and effete indie, this bridged the gap between metal, punk and alternative. Bit it was more than a single: an album or a band, it launched their Seattle brethren into the spotlight as well, giving Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains their entry point into the mainstream. Grunge was inescapable, even if Kurt Cobain and his ilk hated the association.
But when Nirvana hit the mainstream the inmates took over the asylum. Cobain hated being labeled the voice of a generation, but it was his undeniable position. Despite his reluctance, he wasn’t shy about speaking out on issues he felt passionate about.
He was a feminist, he decried homophobia in music, he despised artifice and bit the corporate hand that made him rich. He was also deeply troubled, completely unable to handle fame, even if he could never fully admit how much he wanted to enjoy its trappings. They were an organic band railing against the very corporate aspects that marketed their unkempt furor to the masses. Needless to say, this did not sit well with the group, and Cobain in particular. But it fit in with their angst.
There was an upside to this Faustian bargain. Nirvana blew the door open for the underground, giving tons of obscure acts a shot at the big time. The downside was obscure college bands no longer felt like best-kept-secrets that required record store detective work. That was a huge (and often annoying) component of being a fan of bands of the alternative variety.
Another upside? It was cool to be a freak. To not hold in your quirks and insecurities, but flaunt them. Being bummed out was acceptable. But feeling a sense of belonging was the best part of it all.
Of course, none of this would’ve happened if the music sucked.. We all know the singles. Smells Like Teem Spirit was the anthem of a generation. The waterlogged Killing Joke riff to Come As You Are anchored words of dread, and the euphoric lift-off of Lithium decried its chemically imbalanced lyrics.
But the deep cuts were just as good: Polly was a creepy tale of captivity straight out of a serial killer film, Breed (my favorite song) was a cathartic ball of sonic nerves, and Something in the Way was a killer album closer: morose and painful, yet healing.
Much of the album’s success lies in Butch Vig’s production: he knew how to double track Cobain’s vocals, fleshing them out to smooth out his often pitchy howl. He knew how to mic Dave Grohl’s drums so they hit the back of your skull when you cranked Teen Spirit loud. He also knew how to harness Krist Novoselic’s bass, the sinewy connective tissue of the band, pumped high in the mix whenever Cobain’s guitar was laying low. The band’s loud/quiet/loud dynamic was a crucial part of their formula. The songs were simple but inspired, easy enough to empower many young musicians to learn their riffs.
Nirvana fanatics and indie snobs will always say In Utero was their best album. It’s certainly strong, but nah. That reactionary album would sit in a vacuüm without Nevermind. It’s not only their best album, but one of the best of the 90’s…or any decade. Not all tracks are equal, but they all feel essential…even hidden track Nameless, Endless was a blissful white noise freak out.
We should’ve known it was too good to last: any interview with Cobain showed he was in deep shit. Record companies over saturated the market with grunge knockoffs. It wasn’t built to be sustainable. His suicide felt inevitable, making it all the more tragic.
But for a moment Nirvana and their fans seized the zeitgeist and it was glorious. There hasn’t been any band since, no matter their talent or acclaim, that reshaped the cultural landscape the way Nirvana did with Nevermind. And in this fragmented distracted society, nothing in that album’s size, scope and subversiveness will ever happen again.
It’s funny that I never feel the need to listen to Nevermind these days (minus the occasional indulgence on satellite radio). Maybe I just burnt myself out on it after playing it incessantly for nearly 2 years. It served its purpose.
But when I was in my early 20s, awkward in my own skin, trying to figure shit out, it made me feel like I wasn’t the only one who was out of sorts. It made me feel connected to something bigger. It meant the goddamn world.
What memories does Nevermind hold for you upon its 25th anniversary? Tell me in the comments.