"Breed" and "Lithium"
Reading old reviews of Bleach offers the impression that just about anyone who heard Nirvana’s debut assumed the band was destined for bigger and better things. It’s an album that’s a little rough around the edges, but there are a few pop hooks, and the benefit of hindsight allows us to see that the band was a slick mix away from a bona fide hit. Still, there must have been people out here who thought Bleach was perfect the way it was, because while 40,000 copies pre-Nevermind isn’t a huge number, you still don’t sell that many albums without someone thinking you’re great. For those fans, the first three tracks of Nevermind must have felt like a cold shower.
“Breed” turns the heat back on. Really, it’s the rhythm section that’s the star of the show here. Dave Grohl is allowed to put together one of those ridiculously fast, rolling rhythms that remind the listener just how incredible a drummer he happens to be, while Krist Novoselic’s buzzy bass is what keeps the song from sounding like straight-faced punk-metal. The effect of Novoselic’s seven-notes-and-repeat bassline is pop via surf-rock, the drive that motivates Kurt Cobain’s repetitive verse and almost hypnotic coda. Novoselic is steady as a surgeon here, only changing things up when the chorus hits to follow along with Cobain’s chord changes—his refusal to change even when Cobain is screaming his loudest is emblematic of his less-is-more approach to his music, tying the verse to the chorus and avoiding a jarring transition.
As much as Nirvana tends to be synonymous with Cobain, he is in turn content to let Novoselic and Grohl do most of the heavy lifting on this one, as his words are essentially filler, something for the people to sing along to as they bop along to the beat. You could look into this one and find any number of meanings. “I don’t care if I’m old”, when isolated, seems oddly prescient now, but following it up with “I don’t mind if I don’t have a mind / Get away from your home / I’m afraid of a ghost” renders it essentially meaningless. It’s classic Cobain when he doesn’t really have anything to say: string some words together and figure out what they mean later.
The chorus, however, sounds like a desperate plea for wedded suburban bliss: “We could plant a house / We can build a tree… She said”, he sings, and the rage and urgency in his voice doesn’t imply that he agrees. Again, “suburban life ain’t for me” isn’t exactly the most original of themes, but at least it makes coherent sense. Just for good measure, Cobain drives “she said” into the ground, just to make sure the listener doesn’t ascribe the sentiment to him.
Still, he or she doesn’t have to. “Breed” is about speed and power more than anything Cobain might have been singing about, and Grohl and Novoselic are more than happy to take over for a track. It’s the perfect cut to put between “Come as You Are” and “Lithium”, a palette cleanser and a throwback to Bleach to prepare the listener for the album’s bleakest track. Mike Schiller
“Lithium” adds a dimension of twisted spirituality to Nevermind, as Kurt Cobain tells the tale of a devout cult member who, according to the author, turns to religion after the death of his girlfriend “as a last resort to keep himself alive. To keep him from suicide.”
Like much of Nevermind, “Lithium” flickers between loud and quiet. “I’m so lonely / And that’s ok / I shaved my head / And I’m not sad”, softly cries Nirvana’s frontman with all the discipline of a dedicated cultist who has seemingly found a kind of sense in his once chaotic life. The hook, however, is a full-on rallying cry as Cobain inhabits the same youth-stirring guise he took on “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Unleashing the pent-up angst of Generation X—which he would soon be lauded as being the voice of after the album’s release—the singer’s shrieks of “I love you”, “I miss you”, and “I kill you” are met with determined yells of “I’m not gonna crack”, making it one of Nirvana’s most anthemic compositions.
But for all its heavy imagery, “Lithium” is one of the most pleasurable pop songs the band ever recorded. When brought in to produce Nevermind, Butch Vig’s first act on the song was to simplify the bass and drums sections. Vig’s production sparkles, from Krist Novoselic’s neatly-plucked bass to Dave Grohl’s spotlessly thumped drums and Cobain’s smooth guitar playing on the hook. In this respect it’s perhaps the album’s most obvious example of the polished production Cobain expressed feeling somewhat awkward about.
It wasn’t all that surprising then that at a recent club night I attended that promised “commercial chart R&B” spun by actor and celebrity DJ Idris Elba, “Lithium” was slid onto The Wire star’s playlist. If Cobain was alive today, a reflection on the song’s journey since his death no doubt would have irked him further. Dean Van Nguyen