RETROSPECTIVE: Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ is a timeless ode to non-conformity

By Niamh Elliott-Brennan

CW: Mentions of rape.

On September 24th 1991, an underground Seattle grunge band called Nirvana released their second album Nevermind: an alt-rock record that would rupture mainstream tradition and send the band soaring to international heights. Composed of singer-songwriter and guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and baby drummer Dave Grohl, Nirvana became the figurehead of a disenfranchised, anti-establishment generation overnight; they burnt bright and burnt quickly.

It’s been thirty years since the release of Nevermind, but, in this reviewer’s opinion, the album is temporally transcendental. It’s an album defined by frustration and disillusionment with the world, with authority, with your peers who seem blind to suffering all around them; themes that continue to resonate deeply in the 21st century.

The first track, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, is to Nirvana what ‘Creep’ is to Radiohead. This song is, at least in part, to thank for the alt-rock template of quiet verses with shaky guitar and strained vocals, followed by an earsplitting chorus. Its lyrics are intentionally nebulous to echo the feelings of a generation defined by alienation, cultural repression, and a shifting social landscape. The pre-chorus repetition of “Hello” morphs into “Hollow” – an encapsulation of emptiness encapsulated followed by Cobain screaming “Here we are now, entertain us / I feel stupid, and contagious”. It’s a howl of anguish and anxiety that is undermined by a self-sabotaging final verse (“Oh well, whatever, nevermind”).

‘Teen Spirit’, whilst hardly Nirvana’s best work, served the distinct purpose of satirising the culture of conformity and apathy Cobain saw manifesting in the mainstream. This sardonic commentary peaks with ‘In Bloom’ which bursts into life with an explosive opening riff, packing cynicism and defeatism into a menacing pop-rock song. Novoselic’s heavy, brooding bassline juxtaposes stunningly with Cobain’s sing-a-long chorus, “He’s the one / who likes all our pretty songs / and he likes to sing along… / but he don’t know what it means”, lamenting the mindless fans who adored Nirvana’s music for its superficial – not political – qualities. There is, then, an agonising irony in these two tracks becoming Nirvana’s biggest hits. Both songs mock shallow, mainstream party culture, yet their mass popularity meant millions globally were singing the same two songs, without realising they could very well be the subject of said criticism.

Stepping away from the distortion pedals, the most confronting track on the record, ‘Polly’, appears delicate and unassuming at first; the soft acoustic strumming, Cobain’s gentle singing, and the minimalistic instrumentation almost resembling a love song. Hence why “Polly wants a cracker / I think I should get off her first” sends a chill up your spine, its sweetness subverted by the eerie revelation Polly is a girl being starved by her rapist. Sung from the rapist’s perspective, the song is profoundly disquieting as the chorus continues the caged bird metaphor (“Have a seed / let me clip your dirty wings”). It ends ambiguously; “She caught me off my guard / amazes me, the will of instinct” insinuates Polly escaped, but the sarcastic intonation implies otherwise.

The twisted rocky filth returns with force in ‘Territorial Pissings’, an ode to women and the SCUM Manifesto. The title ridicules machismo through reference to animals (macho men) pissing to claim territory (sex and power). It opens with Novoselic’s screechy vocals before plummeting into a raw, scraping guitar riff that’s probably the most punk moment in Nirvana’s catalogue. Despite there being only eight individual lines in the entire song, the message presented is far from abridged – “Never met a wise man, / If so it’s a woman”. The chorus consists of variations on the lyrics “Gotta find a way, find a way, when I’m there!”, ending in Cobain screaming nonsensically in a broken voice, desperately pleading for change in a society that has commodified activism.

After listeners have floated out on a gossamer cloud of silky smooth cello and acoustic guitar with the last (official) song on the record, ‘Something in the Way’, we reach our end. As with all three of Nirvana’s albums, Nevermind was the intimate product of Kurt Cobain’s excruciatingly primal artistry – then overproduced and polished into a glossy chart-topping rock album. Their producer, Butch Vig, admitted to lying to Cobain about ruined takes to get him to record overdubs, and DGC Records brought in Andy Wallace (producer for Slayer) to remix the tracks after deeming them to be too grating. What resulted was a layered, clean, radio-friendly album with just enough edge to be pop-punk – a far cry from the aggressive grunge rock intensity of Nirvana’s debut, Bleach, and their final album, In Utero.

Nevermind sonically shaped 90s rock and triggered the re-emergence of punk counterculture, but it didn’t truly embody Cobain’s abrasive and iconoclastic vision. The singer would later dismiss Nevermind, labelling it “a Motley Crue record” – not the punk album he wrote. But this doesn’t delegitimise how Nevermind encapsulated the zeitgeist of a generation like so few other records ever could. Cobain’s ability to weave that into music was a sign of a sublime artistry that fuelled, and was ultimately overshadowed by, the achingly public tragedy of his life.

But, clearly, it’s been a long time since the heyday of Nirvana. Dave Grohl has become one of the most influential rock musicians of the 21st century, known for his unconventional and unique drumming patterns and his work with his bands the Foo Fighters and Them Crooked Vultures. Krist Novoselic continued to make music but stayed out of the limelight. And as for Kurt Cobain – I think it’s time to consider his music for its disruptive and radical force, instead of ruminating on his death.

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *