Nirvana's Nevermind Turns 31 Today
With over 75 million albums sold, billions of streams, and generations of fans, Nirvana is still relevant 31 years after its iconic release and 35 years after forming the band.
Credited with introducing the world to the grunge scene out of Seattle, Nirvana exploded to heights nearly impossible to reach. Their song and video for the breakout single, "Smell Like Teen Spirit" took the planet by storm, changed music and culture, and eventually told Michael Jackson and Garth Brooks to take a hike.
I've been covering and writing about 90s music for about 20 years and one thing that remains constant is how this music is the lifeblood of millions of people worldwide. Nirvana certainly wasn't the only band from that era that created this raging passion, but they were the biggest.
There aren't many bands that last over three decades let alone release an album with the historical impact that Nirvana did with Nevermind. It's not an everyday occurrence, to say the least. With all the time that has passed, Nirvana is still gaining fans and taking its place in the cultural consciousness in 2022.
It's obvious that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is the song that represents Nirvana the most, and it's easy to understand why. It's the song that started the most important musical movement since The Beatles landed in New York in 1964.
I have news for you though, it's not the best song on Nevermind.
A bit of a hot take perhaps, but I will explain. I loved "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from the first moment I heard that jangly guitar riff which led to the gut-punch that is Dave Grohl's massive drum explosion and off we went.
The song sounded like nothing that was out at the time. The soft to heavy dynamic that Nirvana had perfected (thank you Pixies) acted like a sonic addiction. A nation of slackers suddenly became disciples of the trio from Seattle and their stage was our altar.
Nevermind satisfied a need we weren't aware we had. The band acted, and we reacted. The harmonious marriage has now lasted 31 years, spawned millions of children, and guided the misguided all along the way.
Songs like "In Bloom" and "Come As You Are" were built for radio play. Both were instantaneously memorable, utilizing that verse/chorus/verse and light-to-heavy formula perfected on Teen Spirit. The songwriter living inside of Kurt Cobain took every punk and pop melodic sensibility he had, added distortion, and a pained growl, and essentially created a monster. We still can't get enough.
"Breed" is the heaviest song at this point on the record. It reminds us that Nirvana is here to be fast and loud above all else. Placing it fourth on the track listing was a great move.
Next up we have "Lithium". By now it's safe to say Nirvana is unapologetically using its classic formula of sound dynamics and we've fully bought in.
On their debut album Bleach, Nirvana has a song called "About A Girl", which is as close as that record gets to having an acoustic track on it. It's also the song that first introduced me to the band back in 1989. I bring that up because "Polly", the sixth song on Nevermind is in fact an acoustic song, the first one we hear on the album. Its haunting atmosphere and dark lyrics are something Nirvana would become known for in their short-lived career.
"Territorial Pissings" is a blazing, fuzzed-infused punk song. Grohl hits the drums on this song as if his life depended on it and Kurt's voice is scratchy, pained, and awesome all at the same time. If you weren't sold on Nevermind's power by this point in the record, you have no soul.
The light-to-heavy dynamic comes back in full force on "Drain You", one of the album's catchiest songs.
Remember when I said that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" isn't the best song on Nevermind? And remember when you thought I was crazy when you read that? Well, we've arrived at the best song on the album. "Lounge Act" has everything in it that makes Nirvana so great. To me, it's their most perfectly crafted song.
From the first notes of Krist Novoselic's bassline, setting up the rhythm for the song, "Lounge Act" already feels like something special. Kurt's vocals are clear and understated. This song oozes melody as the first verse leads into the chorus seamlessly.
After the first verse, you may be left wondering why I think it's so good. It's nothing you haven't heard before. Even as the second verse happens after the first chorus, you may not realize what's actually going on. It sounds almost identical to the first. If you listen closely though, this song has that subtle magic so many great songs have...it creates anticipation.
The tempo never changes, the chords never change, but there's a slow and steady shift in the feel coming from Kurt's voice. If you haven't noticed it before, you will after reading this.
Then, the third verse happens...
This verse is Nirvana. This is the kind of emotion few songs can deliver with nothing but a vocal change. The desperation and angst in Kurt's voice break through the speakers and covers the listener in the magic that is music. He was leading us here the entire time. He understood the power of dynamics more than just about anyone and this verse is the greatest payoff on the album.
"Stay Away" and "On A Plain" are more of the same in terms of the quiet/loud formula that has kicked our collective ass throughout the record thus far. This album was designed with songs like these in mind and they deliver in a big way.
The most important album of the last 31 years ends with a poetic drone that may just be the most honest look into the soul of Kurt Cobain. With what sounds like a pawn shop purchased acoustic guitar, "Something In The Way" plods along with a barely audible Kurt singing in a whisper.
We heard the haunting tones of "Polly" earlier but this track is as haunting as it gets. It's somber and brutal but beautiful at the same time.
So much has changed since September 24, 1991. Everything has changed actually. Looking back, I can't understand how three decades have passed since this generation-defining album was released. But they have.
Kurt had a love/hate relationship with his fame so I often wonder how he'd view this album now had he lived. If I had the chance to ask him about the impact this album had on the world then and now, something tells me his answer might have been..."oh well, whatever, nevermind".