Friday, September 23, 2011

Nirvana - Nevermind

I have to be honest; Nevermind is my least favourite Nirvana album. It doesn't have the punk fury of debut Bleach, or the experimentation of 1993's In Utero, nor the emotional intensity of their MTV Unplugged performance. But it was still absolutely superb, and it is worth remembering this weekend, as it passes its twentieth anniversary.

Beyond the music and the words though, twenty years since Nirvana's Nevermind will be to many an extraordinary marker in the passage of time. For those who grew up listening to it, Nevermind was a cultural touchstone of their generation - an event to measure their youth by. Even when I was getting into rock eight years later, buying a copy of Nevermind still seemed like a rite of passage. Judging by the number of Nirvana T-shirts the young fans of today wear, that might well still be the case. So how can we account for the immense cultural - and therefore social - significance of an album that Kurt Cobain later dismissed as being "one-dimensional".

In his review of the twentieth anniversary edition, Neil McCormick states that:
"The elusive yet somehow tangible truths in Cobain’s songwriting are located in the sound and the fury, the hurting tone of his voice, the alternately deadpan introversion and raw rage of his delivery. Addressing (and rebelling against) generational despair, Nirvana perform as if it is a matter of life and death, which retrospect tells us it really was."
This is certainly true. But beyond the sound of the album, the lyrics do also give us an insight of the mind of Cobain - an elected representative of the people in a way that a politician could never be.

When I wrote my article on Pearl Jam's Ten last month, I described how:
"In the final analysis, grunge was the product of a society that had been through the Reagan-led ruling class counter-offensive of the 1980s, and was now seeing his successor, George Bush Snr, deepen the chasm between rich and poor. The anger of hardcore punk had given way to some despair, and parts of Seattle were full of apparently futureless, often drug addicted and sometimes homeless young people, many of whom formed bands."
In that analysis, Cobain was the archetypal grunger. He was addicted to heroin, and had been homeless for long spells since leaving home at the age of sixteen. He'd sleep under bridges, in his car, or trick his way into hospital waiting rooms, just to get a roof over his head for the night. Cobain had a sense which he shared with many around him in Seattle at the time - the only way he would have any sort of future would be if he made it in music. Ironically, as we now know, it was the music industry's treatment that largely contributed to him having no future at all. On a personal level, Cobain had complicated family issues - especially with his mother - and had suffered a painful breakup with Tobi Vail of riot grrrl band Bikini Kill around the time he wrote many of the songs.

The anniversary has prompted much reminiscence and debate
All of these elements fed into a rich internal mosaic, which Cobain made public property through his words. This too was a contradiction which would haunt the rest of his life. It kicks off with Smells Like Teen Spirit, which you've probably heard way too many times, but is routinely referred to as the 'anthem for a generation'. To the extent that this is true, it was an awkward, confused, and even terrified generation - one that wanted to ask profound questions but ended up just saying "Oh well, whatever, never mind". In Bloom's chorus mocks scene posers and business types who pretended to like the band, while the apparently unrelated verses ponder fertility in definitely unflattering terms. Then it's straight on to the Killing Joke-ripping-off-but-still-classic riff of Come As You Are, which is lyrically indecipherable, but suggests a certain love of artistic honesty and openness.

Breed started life as 'Imodium', a tribute of sorts to the digestive problems of Tad Doyle from the band Tad. But perhaps Cobain balked at the puerility of this theme, and other layers were added, hinting at decisions within personal relationships. Lithium is often assumed to be a reference to the drug most commonly prescribed for those diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but it's actually far cleverer than that, comparing the euphoria of 'born again' Christians with a drugged sense of reality - something the writer himself had experienced from both sides. Polly then breaks up the album with a very bare account of how a young punk fan was abducted, raped and tortured after a gig, before pretending to enjoy her treatment, and finally catching her abuser "off guard" and escaping.

We're then very definitely back into the rock with Territorial Pissings - a furious anti-machismo song which begins with an ironic invocation of hippy standard Get Together by The Youngbloods. Once you get that reference, you can't honestly assert that Nirvana didn't say anything about the society they had grown up in. Then follows Drain You, which emerged from the wreckage of Cobain's relationship with Vail, but almost questions the basis of all relationships with its ultra-clinical depiction of various intimate acts. Lounge Act and Stay Away are actually pretty forgettable - were it not for the fact they're on Nevermind. But On A Plain is remarkable, if only for the fact that parts of it mechanically describe Kurt trying to write a song, even though he has nothing in particular to say at the time. This is a quintessentially postmodern problem, written just as pomo was starting to thoroughly poison the cultural waters.

Nevermind concludes with the almost unbearable but brilliant Something In The Way, which is more sparse even than Polly, just lightly strummed chords, cello, and nearly whispered vocals. Producer Butch Vig has said that when Kurt recorded this, he had to turn the mics way up, because the levels were far too low. At the end, everyone was stunned into silence. I'm sure I would have been too. It has been widely speculated that the verse lyrics are related to his homeless days, but the chorus - and its delivery - is perhaps the most eloquent passage of the entire forty-two minutes.

Yes, there is something in the way. There always seems to be something in the way. So many of us know that feeling, like so many of us know so many of the feelings on the record. And that - for all its opacity - is the main reason that so many of us get THAT feeling when we listen to Nevermind.
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