The Will of Instinct
Nevermind may be a classic record, but it’s also got a lot of baggage. Some of it came later, with Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, but most of it stems from the meaning we’ve all hung on it. It was the album that put the spotlight on Seattle and, as a result, somehow restored integrity to popular rock music. It introduced us to our next great tortured genius. It defined a generation.
By all accounts, none of these claims really hold up—well, maybe the tortured genius one, but what does it say that this is something we look for, even admire? In fact, this reading of the album actually gets it all backwards, mostly because of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, with its unifying sneer, “Here we are now, entertain us!” But now that we’ve been given time—and some new deluxe editions with all the Nevermind-era cuts you could possibly want—it has become clear that this is an album about the feelings of one man, and his musical struggles are exactly what make this the great, lasting record it is.
That’s not to say that this record is good because Cobain was a tortured soul at all. The notion of the tortured artist is, for all intents and purposes, bullshit, a construction to separate the artist, make him the unique other to our quotidian existence. No, Nevermind actually debunks the idea of Cobain as victim to rock heroism and popularity. He’s not as much of a cautionary tale about fame as we’d like him to be. Instead, the tensions that exist on Nevermind and made him so troubled as an artist—I’ll stop short of making assumptions of him as a person—are what made it a breakthrough. Here, Cobain is split, a two-minded voice that wanted both rock purity and pop bliss.
So as much as a shrug-off as the album’s title is, as much as they wore their greasy hair long and donned torn t-shirts and mumbled their way through interviews, Nirvana turned out-and-out professional rock band on Nevermind. This isn’t some uncontrollable burst of distorted bile, not just noisy power chords and thundering bass and crashing drums, this is carefully crafted and brilliantly conceived. It’s got all kinds of layers and shifts in tone. It’s a driving rock record, bursting with the band’s own jagged energy, but it’s also a convincing and deeply satisfying pop record.
This division—the cleanliness of pop versus the chaos of punk rock—is all over the record. There’s, of course, the quiet-to-loud dynamic they borrowed from the likes of the Pixies and perfected. And there’s distortion by the boatload. But here’s the thing: There’s nothing uniform about the distortion. The compressed crunch of “In Bloom” sounds nothing like the unruly white noise of “Territorial Pissings”. “Lounge Act” sounds downright clean in comparison to those others, while “Breed” is an absolute buzzsaw. Despite its beyond-anthemic chorus, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” really succeeds on the tension in the pre-chorus, which is more about watery textures than rock fuzz. Behind that, Krist Novoselic tunes his bass down, which does add weight to these songs, but it also acts as a necessary link between the trebly hiss of Cobain’s guitar and Dave Grohl’s thundering kick drum.
The point is that the levels of distortion are chosen carefully, and used to evoke different vibes and emotion. The notion that Cobain was all raw nerve here doesn’t hold up. But beyond the sound of the record, Cobain’s songwriting turns to the strengths of a pop singer on Nevermind. The songs are great because they push into more mature and complicated emotions than the band’s first album, Bleach, but they also reveal Cobain as a savvy voice, one that knows just how to pull us in, how to deny us the hook and then give it to us in droves. Nearly all the songs on Nevermind deal in mercurial verses filled with dark imagery that may not get to clear meaning, but often gets at exactly the emotion it wants you to feel. When we get to the choruses, however, things crystallize. The choruses—“Stay away” or “I’m on a plain, I can’t complain” or the clear list of wants in “Breed”—feel like mantras, or at least plainspoken declarations. On “Lithium”, Cobain takes this to extreme, using only the word “yeah” over and over in the chorus. It’s one word, an affirmative one no less, but the way Cobain pulls on it and repeats it is brilliantly evocative. So while his verses are complicated, often so personal as to be insular, the choruses are inclusive, bracing calls to arms. This isn’t because Cobain wanted us to come together—note the mocking start of “Territorial Pissings”—but because he knows the power of a good, loud chorus.
Though the meaning of the lyrics is often difficult, this division imbedded in Cobain as a writer and performer shows itself often. “In Bloom” says at first that “Weather changes moods” and then, in the second chorus, “Nature is a whore.” So he both acknowledges factors he can’t control and damns them. He turns phrases on “Breed” (“I don’t mind if I don’t have a mind”) and “Lounge Act” (“I’m afraid I’ve never known a fear”). “The finest day that I ever had,” he sings in “On a Plain”, “was when I learned to cry on command.” His greatest moment comes in evoking his worst feelings. Also note the “on command”, which implies not only an audience, but a demanding one. Even his feelings aren’t wholly his own here.
Despite all the splits and disconnection, Nevermind is a propulsive and oddly celebratory set. Cobain was a musician constantly indebted to those who came before him, but if his music grew out of a love of the Pixies, for instance, it wasn’t merely arbitrary that they became far bigger than the Pixies did. Black Francis was a fascinating songwriter and frontman, but he was too frayed at the edges to get to the levels Cobain got to. On this record, Cobain, with the help of producer Butch Vig and Andy Wallace’s mix, honed his pop tendencies. Because this is who he was. By disposition, Cobain was a punk rocker. But by trade, he was a pop songwriter. He could write a hook that never aged. He knew the power of the verse-chorus-verse structure. His voice, gruff as it was, was also awfully sweet.
He wasn’t manipulating us with this pop craft. He and Grohl and Novoselic weren’t cashing in by sanding down their sound. When Grohl joined, they got exponentially stronger, but they also got far more tuneful. Cobain and company were meticulous with this record—the more unruly In Utero has the same pop underpinnings—and it went against their punk rock roots. So there’s differing stories about how happy they were with the final mix, though no one stopped the record from coming out. Not only that, but once the band signed to the major label, the whole focus of the record shifted. It was initially to be called Sheep and Cobain wanted to make a record about conformity, something far more societal (and perhaps more fitting to how we see Nevermind) than the resulting record. They also changed “Pay to Play”, a song about selling out (an early version is included here), to the more oblique condemnations of “Stay Away”. These changes are smart, because they do imply an integrity, a need to not avoid hypocrisy, but it’s also of two minds: To sign to a major label is bad, but we’ve signed to a major label so let’s do it as honestly as possible. Nirvana were slackers only in appearance, it turns out, and they knew quite a bit about image control. For those who cringe at the idea, who think this somehow impugns their purity as a band, don’t mistake me. This isn’t a condemnation; it’s what artists do. Presentation and content go hand in hand, and Nirvana brought their rock anarchy and their pop sensibilities to a rocky but fruitful union on Nevermind.
To hear the extras on the deluxe edition only confirms their meticulous approach. “Even in His Youth” is a fine b-side, as is “Curmudgeon”. They’ve both got the piss and vinegar, but neither dig their hooks in as deeply as anything on the record. An early version of “Aneurysm” here is excellent, but it comes off as a bit too dark for Nevermind. There are live tracks that show how the band honed their sound around this time, but perhaps the most instructive stuff comes on the second disc with the songs from the original Smart Studio sessions and boom box rehearsals. There are some notable outtakes here—like “Sappy” (another version was on No Alternative) and a cover of Velvet Underground’s “Here She Comes Now”—but mostly it just shows these songs in embryonic forms. The hooks aren’t quite tightened yet, the guitar tones mostly uniform, the lyrics not quite sharp in places. The raw power of the songs is there, but you need the finished product to see where these songs went, just how good they got when the band focused and polished them into gems. “Polly” perhaps shows best where the band was going. The album version is virtually unchanged from the Smart Studios take, complete with cymbal work from Bleach drummer Chad Channing. Its brittle acoustic sound insists that this is tossed off. But that faintly crashing cymbal, the layered vocals on the choruses, the way Novoselic’s bass comes into the mix—it all gives it away as something more. Like the rest of Nevermind, its elements are simple, but the way they are framed and delivered is deceptively intricate. The purity of rock music and the sweetness of pop. Cobain wasn’t making statements about these things; he was struggling with the want for both.
“It amazes me, the will of instinct,” he sings in “Polly”, and here he may be unintentionally giving away that conflict inside of him. If there’s something tragic about Cobain, it isn’t that he was destroyed by fame, or that fame is some inherently evil construct. What’s sad is that he was an infinitely talented man, but his talents were for a world—i.e. pop music—that he didn’t fit into and/or couldn’t be comfortable in. Nevermind could not have sounded any other way, nor could it have sounded better. And maybe some of the reason it took off was arbitrary—the timing of these things always is—but its lasting power is anything but. The emotions Cobain reveals here are powerful even if they are oblique, and we don’t relate to them so much as we recognize how deeply he feels on this record. In the end, though, it may be the power of the sound that undid this two-minded performer. Two decades on and that power, tragic as it is, has yet to diminish.