Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

by PopMatters Staff

25 September 2011


"Stay Away" and "On a Plain"

#10 “Stay Away”

Revolutions often span generations and are not often easy to describe in a few words. Some of the greatest counter-cultural documents, however, didn’t need several hundred page books to get their points across. The Communist Manifesto, for instance, only runs 23 pages. Nirvana, as influential as it is, may not be anywhere near as philosophically or ideologically influential as Marx and Engels, but what they share with the famed German philosophers is their brevity. In a brief, three minute and thirty-two second package, Nirvana succinctly gives a message to all of the copycat bands and to all of the critics who had passed over the greatness of the Seattle grunge scene: “Stay away!”

A classic Lebowski-ism applies perfectly to the song: the beauty of it “is in its simplicity”. The chorus, comprised of the eponymous charge, is a deeply effective summation of the rebellious tone that drove not only the music of Nirvana, but much of early 1990s grunge music as well. For Cobain, two words are all that is necessary to get his point across, and given the determination in his yells, he succeeds. The verses, punctuated by sharp stabs of distorted guitar, highlight much of what Nevermind seemed to be reacting to: Cobain calls out those who would “rather be dead than cool” and how with much music, “every line ends in rhyme” (which, perhaps ironically, then contributes to a slant rhyme in the next line). The music itself, of course, never lets up; beginning with a snare drum and a bass, the song then kicks into overdrive, with the sludgy distortion of Cobain’s guitar emphasizing the band’s rebellion.

Though the song spends much of its time in aggression towards the things that it rallies against, it interestingly enough never gets violent. Instead of inciting action, violent or otherwise, toward the musical trends that led up to the release of Nevermind (synthesizer-driven pop and soft rock, most notably), the band merely insists that those detractors come no further. Given the resolve the band shows on this track and the rest of the record, it’s no surprise that the trio is quite aware of its strength and fully conscious of its likely implications.

With the spirit of rebellion against the mainstream of the time so prominent in this song, it’s ironic that Nevermind would lead to both grunge music and Nirvana’s stardom. Seeing as the anti-establishment sentiments of genres like grunge are often seen as vogue, as means of “being cool”, a cynical retrospective analysis might lead some to think that Nevermind was just a sly, two-faced means of achieving stardom. One listen to a track like “Stay Away” should dispel any such notion. There have been many great grunge artists since Nirvana, but there’s no record quite like Nevermind, and no song on that LP demonstrates both Nirvana’s skill and counter-cultural musicality better than this one. Brice Ezell

#11 “On a Plain”

“On a Plain” is a quilt of rags without pretense; you wouldn’t find it hanging in a gallery as outsider art. After the skuzzy guitar junk at the track’s opening, the song steps forward like it has work to do. In many ways, it’s a working-class song.

It’s also a very self-conscious song. The bracing assertions of the music are countered with anxiety about its lyrics and the audience and singer’s need for sense. Cling too much to one thread, though—for instance, “I got so high, I scratched ‘til I bled”, probably a reference to heroin use—and you’ll strain yourself trying to tie it to others. Cobain often wrote by cutting out and stitching together lines from his poems and early song drafts, including the line above and “The black sheep got blackmailed again” from an early version of “Verse Chorus Verse”. In some songs, you’d never know that; here, the song is certain you already know.

If the protagonist in this track could do better, he would. He’s tried, starting “without any words” because words just confuse. Some lines hold together, others are just bad wordplay (that one about sheep and the clumsily-phrased line about forgetting the zip code). An enormous amount of ambiguity is in the couplet “It is now time to make it unclear / To write off lines that don’t make sense”. Well, if you want to make sense, you would dismiss certain lines. Unless he means “write off” as in dashing off a couple nonsense lyrics (early on, Cobain tended to write lyrics in the studio just before a vocal take). Or is it “off lines”, as in strange verse? If you look at this song as long as the singer has lived it, you’ll get lost.

“On a Plain” embodies the complex mix of self-loathing, apathy, confusion, self-consciousness, and boredom that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sings about. That song stares outward, seeing those qualities mainly in culture; “On a Plain” sees them within. Though faster than “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the song feels slower, stoned, resigned to its verbal failures. “What the hell am I trying to say?” Cobain asks only once; much more often he just sighs, “I’m on a plain / I can’t complain.” It’s the track’s equivalent to “Oh well, whatever, never mind.” The flatness of the plain makes everything alike, which makes everything meaningless.

And yet “On a Plain” is one of those Kurt Cobain songs that encloses an infectious, simple melody within a pleasing sameness and tense indifference. That complexity in his songwriting is, I think, often overlooked. So are the songs’ intelligence and honesty. Here you have a man singing, “I love myself better than you”. The narrator’s admission in “On a Plain” isn’t nihilistic or cynical, it’s candid. Plenty of pop and rock songs have said that without meaning to (legions of them, actually). Few mean to say it. Even fewer combine the morality and aggression of the next line, “I know it’s wrong, so what should I do?” Yeah, got any ideas? You and I aren’t exactly Mother Theresa.

All of this is happening despite “On a Plain” exemplifying the pop sheen that detracts from Nevermind. Cobain’s lead vocals are flattened and Dave Grohl’s backups sound synthetic, turning “love myself better than you” into a bratty boast (the upcoming re-release’s inclusion of Butch Vig’s original mix of the album may remedy this, but plenty of live versions unleash the idiosyncrasies in Cobain’s voice). I’ve listened to this song for 20 years and still wonder if Krist Novoselic really plays on it except for that break at the end of the bridge. Full of space but without depth, the wall of bright guitars turn the inwardness of the song back out. It worked for radio. You can imagine those final “uhnn-uhh"s leading into a DJ’s brassy bass voice, but they sound like a pathetic attempt to sex up what has been a blunt song about, at the very least, a communication disorder. Nirvana never sang them live.

It doesn’t matter much. You can still hear the rags. That’s how good this performance is. Robert Loss

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