Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

by PopMatters Staff

25 September 2011


"In Bloom" and "Come as You Are"

#2 “In Bloom”

Full disclosure: this writer is not a Nirvana superfan. But even as a casual listener, “In Bloom” has always been one of my favorite Nirvana songs (not to mention my favorite of the band’s videos—kudos to Cobain for allowing a little humor to seep into the mix). The track, one of the first recorded during the proper Nevermind sessions with producer Butch Vig, comes with plenty of fanboy lore: Vig removing—physically, razorblade and all—the song’s bridge from the final mix; Cobain taking, as Krist Novoselic put it, the hardcore edge off of the track and transforming it into a pop song; Vig’s ultimately victorious battle with Cobain to double-track his vocals for a smoother sound. For those uninterested in backstory, the song delivers without it. Play it right after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and it’s easy to see the same blueprint at work here that made that song instantly epochal—soft-loud dynamics, slow bridge, and thundering chorus. Even the basic elements are similar, with Novoselic’s simple bassline guiding the verse along until Cobain’s guitar slashes into the mix for the chorus. As ever, Dave Grohl provides the real muscle, with his flawless sense of build-and-release, completely unfussy in his fills and utterly economical in every flick of the wrist.

In other words, “In Bloom” succeeds so well because everyone in the band strips his own part of the composition down to the bare necessities. Novoselic may have complained that Cobain rid the song of its resemblance to Bad Brains, but the punk spirit is still here in full effect—no frills, just right to the point. Even Cobain’s brief solo is kept quick and clean, wasting no time on masturbatory wailing. There’s a reason why Nirvana inspired—as a rough guess—one billion kids to pick up a Fender guitar for the first time.

Of course, we also have Cobain’s lyrics, often a sticking point for me. There’s nothing quite as glaring here as “a mosquito / my libido”, but Cobain’s Yoda-speak in the chorus—“And he knows not what it means”—looks silly enough in the liner notes. But, all right, it works in the rhythm of the line when he sings it, and that’s enough. The song is prescient on two levels. It was written before the band became the biggest thing on the planet, and it anticipates Cobain’s discomfort with being singled out as the poet messiah of a generation of alternative youths and massive corporations, alike. And, yes, you have the whole “he likes to shoot his gun” bit, singled out in many a cautionary epitaph and half-baked news report in April ‘94. Whatever—whether or not Cobain’s attempts toward lyrical indictment really fly or not, “In Bloom” rocks. You know? Corey Beasley

#3 “Come as You Are”

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” may have been the song that defined a generation, but you could argue that “Come as You Are” was better suited to be Nevermind‘s rallying cry. If nothing else, the title itself speaks to the ethos and ethics of the band, an almost tailor-made motto that described how Nirvana’s music embraced those who didn’t feel that pop culture and pop music gave them much to grab onto. You almost get the sense that Nirvana and the DGC marketing team may have felt the same way, considering that it’s the video for “Come as You Are” that works like the promotional cut for Nevermind, as it uses the album’s indelible artwork for its inspiration. Whether it was riding the coattails of the preceding single’s epochal impact or a standout a-side in its own right that gave Nevermind legs, the second single off of the album goes into the history books as Nirvana’s only other Billboard Top 40 entry.

Musically speaking, “Come as You Are” stands out in the Nirvana songbook as perhaps the group’s catchiest offering. Rounding off the manic energy of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” while creating its own sense of drama through Nirvana’s trademark stop-start dynamics, “Come as You Are” showed off Kurt Cobain’s pop chops better than anything else on Nevermind, and maybe even in the group’s entire catalog. Nothing illustrates this better than the family resemblance between the song’s signature aquatic-sounding guitar intro and the main riff of Killing Joke’s “Eighties”, which, as legend has it, gave Nirvana and its label cold feet over releasing “Come as You Are” as a single. But in comparison, it just goes to show how Nirvana had an intuitive knack for melody that eluded the punk and noise-rock bands it considered its influences and peers. Sure, you can almost feel the heft of his guitar lines and there’s a coating of abrasive buzz in the careening solo, but Cobain’s guitar work always remains accessible and tuneful on the track. Almost finding a sense of harmony and peace in the eye of the sonic storm, “Come as You Are” speaks to Nirvana’s gift for taking hard, obscure sounds and turning them into something almost listener-friendly without losing any of its edge.

Likewise, Cobain’s lyrics end up being anthemic almost in spite of themselves. It’s almost too easy to claim that the opening lines—“Come / As you are / As you were / As I want you to be”—must be tongue-in-cheek, coming as it does from a band of misfits who had the responsibilities of representing a generation foisted upon them. But the real irony of the situation was that the song became a straight-up call-to-arms for outsiders looking for something to believe in and belong to: When it came to the way Nirvana was rapidly transforming the music industry and popular culture, Cobain couldn’t have uttered truer words than “The choice is yours / Don’t be late”. As circumstance would have it, though, those don’t end up being the pithiest lines of a song that, in retrospect, gives you a little too much to chew on and read into when you hear Cobain sing “And I swear that I don’t have a gun / No, I don’t have a gun”, in what now sounds like a ghostly voice. Ultimately, “Come as You Are” works as a fitting testament—however unintended and unwanted a tribute it may be—to the complexity and sphinx-like nature of Kurt Cobain as a performer. Arnold Pan

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