Between the Grooves of Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’

A track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana’s Nevermind. From the hit that popularized grunge to a hidden cacophonous noise-fest.

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

4. “Breed”

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

5. “Lithium”

“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