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.

6. “Polly”

An idea can find its way through history and into a song without the songwriter knowing it, and that’s what may have happened on “Polly”. Though Kurt Cobain was introduced early on to the music of Leadbelly (a man he often called his favorite performer), there’s no certainty that he was well-versed in folk songs. Regardless, when he chose the name Polly, he set off a chain of connections, one that literally crosses an ocean of history.

Cobain wrote “Polly” after reading about the victim of a 1987 kidnapping and rape case in Tacoma, Washington. The teenage girl, whose name was not disclosed, was abducted, raped, and tortured with various devices including a propane torch before she managed to escape. That’s the gist of the song’s creation, but its ideas echo the traditional murder ballad “Pretty Polly”, performed by Dock Boggs and others like Rory Block, the Stanley Brothers, and B.F. Shelton scattered throughout the years. That story finds its first chapters in a broadside called “The Gosport Tragedy” which circulated in London as early as at least the early 18th century. There, Polly is named Molly (both are diminutives of Mary). Pregnant, she is killed by William, the father of her child. She hunts him down on board a ship at sea, appearing as a flaming bird, and forces him to confess. In a later version, she rips him in three.

The ship continued across the ocean, carrying the song, and while the motive for the murder remained, the supernatural element disappeared before the vessel even landed. In the 19th century, the song and the archetype of Polly split and regenerated. In some versions, Polly is resourceful and intelligent; her story changes. In others, she is naïve and waif-like; her story stays the same. In Boggs’ performances, instead of being killed, Polly “[goes] to sleep”, which tells us more about the narrator in the song than it does Polly. As cultural historian Greil Marcus has noted by way of novelist Sharyn McCrumb, the motive for Polly’s murder—her pregnancy—disappears in many 20th-century versions, befitting a frenzied century of casual violence. Only a few modern variations include her killer being brought to justice. The story keeps eroding down to its violent core.

In the scabbed performance on Nevermind, Cobain chooses the Polly that is resourceful, the girl who “amazes” the narrator with her “will of instinct”, a phrase that leaps out of the song. The rapist in the song is amazed because his imagination, though animalistic, is limited and destructive; he cannot understand the strength of her will to live, and it forces a new vocabulary out of a man who has muttered the rest of the song in fragments. In most contemporary versions of “Pretty Polly”, William pulls the surprise, revealing the “fresh dug grave and the spade lying by”; here, Cobain inverts that surprise, rebuilding from the song’s core, rebuilding the core itself.

Cobain sings through the man’s point of view in order to condemn it. You hear this in the lyrics—how Polly says she’s “just as bored” as him, an insult to his intimidation and abuse—and in Cobain’s performance, originally recorded in 1990, a year before the sessions which formed most of Nevermind. Coming after “Lithium” and slightly echoing its opening riff, “Polly” tricks you into thinking it’s going to be more of the same. The acoustic guitar is scraped and low, set back from the mic. Chad Channing’s cymbal crashes at the head of each chorus hint that the band might come in, but it never does; “Polly” remains one of only two all-acoustic songs on the album. Cobain’s voice is boyish, less innocent than it is defensive, but the tone is blank enough to forbid any hint of humanistic empathy with the narrator, any sense of reversed victimization or glorification of what he’s done. He is—as Cobain wrote in the liner notes to Incesticide, describing two men who sang “Polly” while raping a woman—a “waste… of sperm and egg…”

Whether Cobain knew exactly what connections he was calling forth when he used the name Polly is beside the point. He knew enough. — Robert Loss

7. “Territorial Pissings”

I wholeheartedly confess to being one of the few who never liked Nevermind. The record’s guitars blazed too brightly, the drums seemed just a tad too restrained, and the bass didn’t quite scrape the bottom of the low end like I would have liked. Twenty years later, I haven’t changed my mind much on these matters. However, I maintain that “Territorial Pissings” remains the best track on Nevermind because it obviously took my expert criticism to heart. Thanks, fellas!

Obviously, Kurt Cobain’s suicide has cast a long gloomy shadow over the band’s reputation. The thing is, Nirvana was a hilarious band. Not always. But quite often. Lest we forget the venerable “Sliver”, the “In Bloom” video, the sensational bass toss at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, and, eventually, the wacky “tourette’s”, there’s this—a maniacal punk song that begins, of all things, with a seemingly drunken nod to the hippy-dippy Youngbloods. On the one hand, this allusion is appropriate; Kurt Cobain was not particularly shy about expressing an affinity for folk as well as for punk rock. On the other hand, it comes off as the embodiment of punk’s basic aspiration: running the paisley flower power of the 1960s, as well as the bloat of the 1970s, through the bandsaw of cynical, sneering guitar rock. If “Territorial Pissings” does anything, it cuts like about a thousand knives.

Over the course of the song’s shambling two minutes, Cobain spits typically inane, but brilliant, lyrics: “Never met a wise man / If so it’s a woman”; “Just because you’re paranoid / Don’t mean they’re not after you.” The chorus rings out like a desperate plea for most of the track: “Gotta find a way / A better way.” But then, in the final moments, the refrain collapses on itself, degenerating into a brief series of crazed shrieks before, well, suddenly stopping. It’s these final few seconds that make the entire song, if not the band’s entire career.

A quick scan of this track’s YouTube commentary reveals that people still think that music this aggressive must find its resolution in violence—actual non-metaphorical violence. It doesn’t. Here, in the territory that Nirvana cordoned off, the wise ones are women, not men like, say, Axl Rose. Here, the transcendent thinkers are aliens. And here, the endpoint of full-throttle rock music is the hilarity of howling aloud as the tune disintegrates. That’s punk rock, because, really, anyone can do that. All of those things comprise the better way. The better wayayayayayayyyyyy! And if you don’t like any of that, get the hell off the lawn. — Joseph Fisher

8. “Drain You”

Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. It’s a tough gig being the b-side to the biggest rock song of the decade. And no, “Drain You” is not “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, but in a lot of ways, it’s more interesting. If “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is an exercise in economy, with every note and beat perfectly placed, “Drain You” sees Nirvana indulging itself a bit more (though Nirvana’s indulgences still make anything done by its bloated 1970s godfathers seem like Philip Glass). We get an honest-to-god bridge, longer than two bars, with weird noises and gloom-and-doom atmospherics. The track also subtly breaks free from the Nevermind pattern of soft-verse, loud-chorus. “Drain You” goes something like this: loud, then loud, and loud (well, except for that bridge). It’s the song the flannelled faithful could play for any naysayers who accused grunge music of too much moping and not enough rocking.

What makes “Drain You” a real standout are Cobain’s lyrics—still a little hammy and a little obtuse, the chorus lets the King of the Earnest try for tongue-in-cheek. “Chew your meat for you,” he sings, “Pass it back and forth / In a passionate kiss / From my mouth to yours / I like you.” Here’s a test to see if your rock music is doing what it should do. Recite the lyrics out loud. Imagine you’re saying them to your grandmother. Is she disturbed about your generation? Good. Carry on. Cobain’s imagery is wonderfully gross, embracing silliness rather than shooting for dour sloganeering. And, wouldn’t you know, he manages to hit at something genuinely sweet and affecting, in a strange way. “Drain You” hasn’t become celebrated as one of the alterna-’90s’ greatest articulations of love, but perhaps it should. It nails the decade’s supposed tone perfectly, with enough irony to make the image stick in some folks’ craws, but not enough to overpower the little bit of prettiness at its emotional core.

But that’s not what people wanted from Nirvana, by and large. Instead, Cobain was allowed to fill the role of heart-on-sleeve, tortured guitar hero. It’s a shame — the guy clearly had a great sense of humor. Nevermind accomplishes many things, but making you chuckle isn’t high on the list. “Drain You”, when stacked up next to “Teen Spirit” or “Something in the Way” or “Come As You Are”, seems thoroughly fun in a way that the album’s other tracks simply do not. The song still delivers the same adrenaline rush as the band’s best full-volume material, but it does so while feeling less heavy, less grave. It’s an interesting reminder to the band’s detractors that Nirvana was not always so monolithically melancholy, after all. — Corey Beasley