Today would’ve been Kurt Cobain’s 50th birthday. We celebrated by giving someone the greatest gift of all: the experience of listening to Nevermind for the first time ever.
Born at the tail end of the 1990s, my teen years mostly consisted of songs released within that decade. Like many, my early listening habits were mainly influenced by a role model, in this case my older brother, who introduced me to his favourite rock albums during that time – Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys and Green Day, as well as a little classic ’60s rock thrown in by my dad. The rest of my younger years were a bit shaky, ruled by radio hits from Ke$ha, Jason Derulo and Flo Rida (scary right?).
Once I grew older, my own musical tastes were quickly overrun by hip-hop and electronic genres, and somehow along the way, despite my early rock and punk influences, I managed to miss Nirvana.
Before this morning my Nirvana knowledge was limited to say the least. I knew Dave Grohl was the drummer at some point (only really because of Foo Fighters fame), I knew the name Kurt Cobain and I knew he had passed away some time ago (thanks Wikipedia for filling me in with the rest of the details), and I knew they had a song called Smells Like Teen Spirit, which I first heard via the “Weird Al” Yankovic cover.
My most notable memory of Nirvana has to be the iconic Nevermind album cover; the baby floating in the pool with the dollar bill dangling before him. The image has been a source mystery and intrigue for years, having seen it plastered across record shops, as well as countless references in pop culture – there’s no wonder it’s seen as one of the most memorable album covers of all time.
Seeing as today would’ve been Kurt Cobain’s 50th birthday, what better way to celebrate than to listen to Nirvana’s cult classic Nevermind for the very first time?
1. Smells Like Teen Spirit
This is the only track I’m completely familiar with from start to end. I’ve heard it hundreds of times, but this is actually the first time I’ve ever given it my full attention. It sucked me right in on the first strum, with that signature riff and opening drums fill. As track builds I’m more and more baffled by the huge sound they manage to create as a three-piece. I’m only on track one, and I already know this one, but already I think I’m in for a treat.
2. In Bloom
I never knew this was Nirvana, but I’ve definitely heard In Bloom before. This particular song is a huge reminder how much this album has directly influenced other artists I listen to now; that gritty, resonating guitar, the way it makes room for the slappy bass. The chorus is even stronger, topped off with brilliant harmonies to make it even more powerful. I also love the irony of how this poked fun at mainstream audiences, at the same time becoming one of the most mainstream rock successes of all time. In that way, it reminds me of Gang Starr’s Mass Appeal.
3. Come as You Are
Yet another instantly memorable riff and melody, and I’m now starting to realise how much Cobain’s raspy and melancholic tone is rubbing off on me. His voice sounds amazing contrasted against the variety of guitar tones. The guitar solo is incredible – this is the first track that really sticks out for me.
Similar to In Bloom, I’ve heard Breed somewhere before, but blasting it through my headphones is giving me a whole new level of appreciation. The heavily distorted guitars and crushing drum beats, topped off by Kurt’s classically punk enthusiasm has left my jaw is on the floor. The energy has me literally lost for words.
I’m still surprised how many emotions Kurt Cobain can present not only in his song writing, but in his singing too. He can make me thoroughly energetic one minute, and haunt me the next; this is the vibe I get from Lithium as it smoothly builds from an acoustic ballad to grunge anthem. It’s really insightful to hear his viewpoint too – his manic, depressive lyrics are incredibly confronting to me.
So I thought Lithium was lyrically distressing, but Polly takes it to a whole new level. The fact that this is written from the perspective of a real life kidnapper who abducted and raped a fourteen-year-old girl is more distressing than I thought possible. This is simply fucked up, and it’s only that much more eerie because of the stripped-back acoustic performance.
7. Territorial Pissings
Coming after Polly, this tune is actually huge. Hearing Kurt’s voice breaking as he yells through the chorus makes this even more moving. I never knew how outspoken and ahead of their time Nirvana were in terms of targeting social issues, but Territorial Pissings shines through with powerful feminist undertones; once again, this is totally unexpected.
8. Drain You
I don’t know why it’s surprising to me that this album has a love song, but it is, and it’s delivered with another really intriguing outlook. Still heavy and huge in terms of production, yet lyrically his words are personal and wonderfully visual.
9. Lounge Act
Continuing that interesting look into love and desire, here, he talks about cheating, as well as his qualms with affection. It’s another rampant track that just oozes emotion in every way possible, and no way I expected.
10. Stay Away
I really love how the verses and the chorus are pieced together on this one, with each line being topped off with that piercing guitar twang and the lyric, “I don’t know why”. Kurt yelling “Stay Away” against the conformities that he lists is just so awesome, and I especially love how he ends the track with a subtle “God is gay”.
11. On a Plain
This one is really cool, it seems to go off on so many different topical tangents, from drugs to love and life in general. The way he manages to link them all is for some reason is really new and intriguing to me, not to mention how chorus manages to be both so gritty and so easy to sing along to at once.
12. Something in a Way
I didn’t expect a track like Something in a Way to be on this album at all, especially in such a contrast to all the heavy tunes that came before it. Of all the tracks this is the one I really get that Beatles influence that I’ve heard about. Whether or not he really did live under the bridge as he mentions, this track is just so moving and soothing. With the moody, chant-like chorus and almost exhausted tone throughout, it’s one of the most eye-opening songs on the album.
13. Endless, Nameless
Funnily enough this is the kind of track I had originally expected the entire album to maybe sound like. Unrelenting and chaotic, but at the same time, totally attention grabbing to the point that I can’t look away for an instant. Screaming “death”, “violence”, “go to hell” etc., among an array of experimental, sharp and in many ways uneasy guitar tones, it’s like the definition of frustration all pieced together in a song.
When you skip such an iconic album, you begin to think you know how it will sound, how it will make you feel, what it represents. I guess that’s why Nevermind never interested me enough to actually give it a go. Grunge, and Nirvana particularly was always branded to me as this ‘sad’ or ‘edgy’ movement, when in actual fact there’s so much more to it. My perception of it seems to be totally parallel to the way I get so annoyed when people think that all of hip-hop is just one sound, or that it’s all just violent and aggressive gangsta rap.
Listening to Nevermind has really opened my eyes. I never expected it to be as confronting as it was, and I didn’t think it would it actually affect me like it did.
As cliché as it sounds, there’s a real lesson here – not to judge a book by it’s cover, or in this case, an album by its genre, or how it’s perceived by the masses. These albums get branded as classic for a reason, and listening to this has really made me see just how much music I listen to which is directly influenced by this movement. So will I listen to more Nirvana? I think it’s a strong yes.