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.

9. “Lounge Act”

Take a suburban male, 12 or 13 years old, who has found Nevermind (this scenario takes place in 1991, of course). Kurt Cobain speaks to him in a way no other artist has, offering disdain for the world around him, rage to those closest to him, and the sort of sense of humor that means you can never quite tell whether he’s joking. Nirvana’s music is the sort of thing that really means something when you’re that age, even if what it means isn’t entirely clear.

Still, the complexities of Cobain’s lyrics can be difficult for that same teen to digest. Double meanings, interpretation — these are things for poetry class, not suited to the sort of cathartic release that the music would seem to suggest. This is why “Lounge Act” needed to be on Nevermind.

Far from the throwaway track that its short length, late placement, and simple structure would imply, “Lounge Act” is the most immediate and accessible cut from Nevermind. It’s about a girl. Or, maybe, it’s about two girls. Most likely, it’s about the idea of girls; it’s about the difficulty and futility of romance, with some concrete examples to draw on for inspiration. When that suburban teenaged boy is experiencing the sort of frustration that draws him to Nirvana, chances are he’s having trouble in the romance department. While other tracks on Nevermind deal with companionship in other, more abstract ways, “Lounge Act” takes it on directly.

“Truth, covered in security” is the lyric sheet’s reading of the song’s first line, and that alone offers the idea of honesty as a fungible concept. If you’re not reading the lyric sheet, though, you could just as easily hear “insecurity” as one word, which changes the meaning to something more immediate, something you do when trying to navigate a social setting rather than a more general commentary on honesty. It’s the brilliant sort of stage-setting first line that Cobain had a knack for making look easy, and the rest of the song jumps off from there, traveling quickly from the narrator’s insecurity to anger at the target of his affection.

“I’d like to but it couldn’t work”, he says, giving up before he even tries, at least until he gets desperate: “I wanted more than I could steal / I’ll arrest myself, I’ll wear a shield,” he sings, and it even seems like he wins… until he turns jealous (“I’ll keep fighting jealousy / ‘Til it’s fucking gone”) and she goes ahead and… well, whether she actually cheats is left open to interpretation, isn’t it? “I’ll go out of my way to prove that I still / Smell her on you,” he sings, and as he’s throwing accusations at his lover, it’s not clear whether her affair is real or whether it’s in his head, a product of insecurity and paranoia. This is, after all, the persona he’s built for himself for the previous eight songs.

While it would be folly to say that the average teen can truly understand what was going on in Kurt Cobain’s head, a song like this makes it easy to at least identify with him a little bit. “Lounge Act” humanizes Cobain like no other track on Nevermind. — Mike Schiller

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 32-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 scuzzy 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 Teresa.

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 turns 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