Twenty years ago today, Nirvana’s seminal Nevermind was released, I was three years old.
By the time I discovered it properly, Nevermind was 13 years old and Kurt Cobain had been dead for ten years. I was aware of Nirvana before then, in particular Smells Like Teen Spirit, which was, and still is, on heavy rotation across my choice of music channels.
But it was MTV’s flurry of documentaries, countdowns and interviews around the ten year anniversary of his death in April 2004 that really caught my attention. Within weeks, I had bought every album they released, along with DVDs and biographies of Nirvana, Kurt, Dave Grohl and Kurt’s diaries. On a trip to purchase my first guitar not long after, I trekked to the other side of London to hold Kurt’s guitar and wear his sunglasses at the Hard Rock Café. It would be fair to say I became fairly obsessed with Nirvana, they were my first musical love, and at the heart of that was Nevermind, their complexly simple masterpiece.
When I got to uni and started knocking out reviews and making magazines to amuse myself, Nevermind was the first classic album I reviewed. I thought about reusing my review for this blog, but having reviewed my own review now, it isn’t good enough to see the light of day again.
So what can I say about this album that hasn’t been said thousands of times since its release now twenty years ago? Probably not a lot. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t say anything. It’s a cliché, but Nirvana mean a lot to me, and millions of others, because they taught us nothing if not that everyone has a voice and can use it.
Simply, Nevermind deserves to have sold every one of the 30 million copies it has to date. While hipsters and snobs say that In Utero is a better album, there would be no In Utero without Nevermind, as the whole rock scene even today would be different without it. It was a game changer, a breakthrough, and not just for music.
Musically, it is a strong album from start to finish. Every song is a blast of noise, distortion and power, yet always anchored with melody, hooks and catchy turns of phrase. The singles are legendary, from the obvious punch of Smells Like Teen Spirit, to the watery, chill of Come As You Are, to the bounce of Lithium. Drain You, Breed and On A Plain rank amongst the best album tracks ever recorded. Polly and Something In The Way showed they weren’t hiding behind the distortion, displaying quiet composure and depth that few of their peers managed.
The rhythm section of Grohl’s pounding drums and Krist Novoselic’s fuzzy, lively basslines keep the songs moving throughout the 40 minute runtime, counterbalancing the chaos of Kurt’s incendiary vocals and guitar. While many questioned the meaning of his lyrics, his ability to craft a memorable line or rhyme was never in doubt. And his delivery could knock you over or break your heart.
Technically speaking, while he may not have been the most gifted guitarist, he wrote some of the most famously catchy riffs in rock history, that a thousand kids could learn, and learn from. For a three piece, the guitar is solid throughout, always packing a punch and complementing his lyrics.
Sure, it’s a commercial alt-rock album, the songs follow a quiet/loud pattern that Cobain admitted he worried was too much like the Pixies, but so what, without Nirvana, the Pixies and hundreds of other bands would not be so well known today, which is a great thing. This album brought heavy rock back into the mainstream, and launched Grunge as a genre worthy of attention.
Away from the music itself and the effect this album has had on other music, it put Seattle on the map as a genuine hub for alternative music, which it remains to this day. It made heroes of the outcasts. And it spawned a thousand other bands, inspiring slackers around the world and giving them a real belief that they could become the biggest band in the world.
In many ways, it’s the sort of album, and the sort of band, that hard rock is crying out for as much in 2011 as it was twenty years ago.
For more from the players involved, hear an excellent 6 Music special here, featuring Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and producer Butch Vig.
For the final words, as Kurt sang, ‘Our little group has always been and always will until the end.’ I’m in the group, and this album is the group’s treasure.