The teen spirit that is always a component of the ether can hover for years without coalescing into anything more than a haze — that vague, uneasy, something-in-the-air feeling rising like swamp gas as a byproduct of living young and unsteady in a hostile world that hasn’t yet made its intentions clear. But it can also go off with a spectacular atmospheric bang. The catalysts that ignite such cultural explosions rarely survive the experience, and the havoc they instigate is invariably all out of proportion to their efforts. But the changes so wrought can be vast, leveling the land and ushering in an era to which old rules no longer apply.
That said, “Bleach” is not quite the sound of music’s past being sent to its belated grave. Despite traces of catchy melodicism (“About a Girl”), a versatile screamer and a superior grip on dynamics to temper the thick, molten aggression (learned from dark ’70s metallurgists via the Melvins), Nirvana’s debut is a punk album of its time, class and place. This late-’80s aftershock of indie rock’s dare-to-be-ugly thuggery and meaninglessness was grounded in a hope-free slacker/lumpenproletariat lifestyle, and forged too far from any influential music capitals to bother with pretenses of cool or the need to be self-conscious about sounding like Golden Earring (something the group does on “Love Buzz” before unleashing a furious feedback raveup). Faced with the option of hate-you/hate-me lyrics, Aberdeen-born singer/guitarist Kurdt Kobain (as he chose to misspell his name on the cover) opted for the latter, declaring himself a “Negative Creep” and seeing his worthlessness reflected in someone else’s eyes (“Scoff”). Otherwise, the songs are nothing special; neither is the guitar playing. The rhythm section of bassist Chris Novoselic and drummer Chad Channing (Melvins drummer Dale Crover plays on “Downer,” “Floyd the Barber” and “Paper Cuts,” the last two recorded as a demo nearly two years earlier but not appreciably different in approach) puts up a powerful struggle, but Jack Endino’s on-the-cheap production keeps its pounding presence from being clearly felt. Guitarist Jason Everman, although listed as a member of Nirvana, is not on the album; “Love Buzz,” rather than the declaration of devotion to Melvins leader Buzz Osborne some took it to be, is a cover of a silly obscurity by Holland’s Shocking Blue — probably the only group ever touched by the hand of Nirvana to get no career boost from it. The 2009 deluxe reissue appends a contemporaneous live show (Portland, 1990) containing a lot of the same songs, but it’s weirdly combined with the album on a single disc. There’s also an extensive photo booklet.
The trio that made Nevermind two years later had a lot more to show and say for itself. Bolstered by the 1990 arrival of Thor-like hammerer Dave Grohl, the band had spent enough time working the club circuit to become a popular and respected underground attraction, prized for its calamitous brink-of-chaos guitar-smashing performances and ear-splitting sonic brimstone. Cobain had developed prodigiously as a songwriter, and had located the lull’em/slaughter’em power switch, which became Nirvana’s most influential signature. His haphazard lyrics — often disconnected fragments strung together at random, as much a social statement in structure as content — were like an alphabet slate, ideal for disaffected youth to adopt, interpret and take as personally as they needed to.
Signed by an open-minded label waving the Sonic Youth flag in its sales pitch, Nirvana wound up in the studio with producer Butch Vig. Exhibiting the talent that would define the sound of his own Garbage album four years later, Vig’s uncanny sense of placement — putting an effect here, a seemingly unthinkable twist there, pairing vocal lines with other elements and pulling incongruous concepts down off shelves to fulfill visions the band wasn’t even having — helped shape Nevermind in the most extraordinary way. What could have been just a better brand of Bleach became the Rosetta Stone of ’90s punk rock. Together, the four (plus mixmaster Andy Wallace, who did major post-production surgery, including samples and effects, on the results) made a prismatic album that has it all: anger, humor, tunes, power, subtlety, venom, pity, slickness, slackness, stupidity, screams, whispers, insight, allure, repulsion, clarity, confusion — and an uncredited Youngbloods fragment sung by Novoselic at the head of “Territorial Pissings.”
Blasting away in huge power-chord slabs sheepdogged by Novoselic’s potent bass figures and supercharged by Grohl’s rhythmic might, the songs don’t reinvent the wheel, but they do send it careening down a modern highway without a care in the world. Rejecting the most holy of values in “Stay Away,” Cobain sings “I don’t know why I’d rather be dead than cool,” and that’s a liberating breakthrough in itself. The group’s rejection of standard post-adolescent anxieties (meanwhile defining life itself as the era’s new miserable experience) invigorates every note, making strong emotions even stronger and sending the rock meter through the roof. Showing a complete lack of regard for the fear of being exactly what his songs claimed him to be — a confused loner, bored and disconsolate, unwilling to make any effort on his own behalf — Cobain transcended the common role of sensitive stoner hero. Punks had been talking the talk for years, but few ever slouched the slouch with as much genuine conviction.
An intricate and convoluted mesh of ideas and influences wrapped around a brick going through a window, Nevermind is the subconscious of a troubled mind given a monumental and compelling airing. The dozen songs (thirteen, counting the seven-minute unlisted vamp known as “Endless, Nameless” that belatedly follows the last track on all but the first 50,000 copies of the album and quickly became a rote alterna-rock gimmick) accumulate into a barreling boulder. But they also exist in individual vacuum-packed universes, and many don’t bear up to close scrutiny. For all its perception and celebration as an anthem, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — a four-chord sizzlefest loaded with quizzical tributes to alienation and anomie — is ill suited to the office. It has a less grabby chorus than “In Bloom” (an arrogant and condescending attack on the kind of fan who “likes all our pretty songs…but he don’t know what it means”) or even “Drain You,” which reconfigures the “Teen Spirit” chord structure to much better effect. Between the general Scratch Acid screech, the Killing Joke menace of “Come as You Are” and the slithery Melvins bottom distortion of “Breed,” Nirvana might be seen here as the bristling sum of its record collection, but the raw power and the originality of “Polly” (an unnerving and ironic rape fantasy based on an actual event), the gorgeous, cello-haunted “Something in the Way,” the drum-rolling “Stay Away” and the swinging, lightfooted “Lounge Act” truly come from within. Ultimately, though, it’s not really the track-by-track merits of Nevermind that matter.
By whatever confluence of circumstances, strategies, talent and luck aligned in the fall of 1991, Nevermind — defying all expectations — became a multi-million-selling phenomenon, indisputable proof that kids would buy music that moved them even if it came with all the fuck-the-mainstream characteristics that always defined punk out of broad acceptance. Like the ’77 new wave explosion without the inevitable wipeout, Nevermind turned the ’90s — for better and much worse — into the “alternative” decade, a time when no musical exponent was presumed too outlandish for commercial consideration. That Nirvana — in fact, Nevermind — was a one-off explains why so much of what floated in with the subsequent backwash is so bad; that’s what floodgates are for in the first place. Still, as a sweeping colonic, the album became — alongside “That’s All Right,” “Maybellene,” The Times They Are a-Changin’, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Anarchy in the UK” — one of the most epochal pieces of plastic in rock’n’roll history.
Hormoaning, issued in Japan and Australia to promote a Pacific Rim tour in early ’92, consists of six tracks, none of which had been on LP at the time. The covers of songs by Devo (“Turnaround”), the Wipers (“D-7”) and the Vaselines (“Molly’s Lips” and “Son of a Gun”) come from a 1990 John Peel session. The band’s own “Aneurysm” and “Even in His Youth” were lifted from the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” CD single.
Most of Hormoaning wound up on Incesticide, the rarities compilation released in lieu of a Nevermind follow-up in ’92. The fifteen-track set contains a B-side from the Blew EP (“Stain”) and both studio tracks from the Sliver EP (“Sliver” and “Dive”); there’s a different version of “Aneurysm,” a fast, electric “(New Wave) Polly” and “Been a Son” from a second BBC radio session, previous compilation tracks (“Beeswax” and “Mexican Seafood”) and vault excavations. Except for “Sliver” (an early indication of the burgeoning catchiness in Cobain’s writing) and the charms of the two Vaselines tunes, the music is pretty consistently second rate — and wholly unimproved by the appalling rockstar hubris of Cobain’s liner notes. “A big ‘fuck you’ to those of you who have the audacity to claim that I’m so naive and stupid that I would allow myself to be taken advantage of and manipulated…If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us — leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.”
In Utero captures the group in a downward spiral of confusion and instability. (A couplet from “Territorial Pissings” — “Just because you’re paranoid/Don’t mean they’re not after you” — aptly describes the self-absolving principle driving the process.) Unlike Nevermind‘s relative unselfconsciousness, a jittery sense of being caught by jailbreak floodlights afflicts nearly every track, starting with the overt acknowledgment of “Teen Spirit” in “Rape Me.” Concern for coolness is the likely explanation for the selection of producer Steve Albini; the album’s harsh Jesus Lizard-strength abrasion and scorched-throat singing dares the band’s converts to maintain their enthusiasm. The corrosive sound is no cosmetic skin-peel: the songs’ content is equally rough and damaging. The predictable flagellant’s shame of “Serve the Servants” (“Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old”) is only the beginning. “Dumb” (“I think I’m dumb/Or maybe just happy”), “Rape Me” (“Hate me/Do it and do it again”), “Milk It” (“I am my own parasite”) and “All Apologies” (“Everything’s my fault/I’ll take all the blame”) all open ragged and bloody wounds of self-loathing.
Musically, the record is likable in fits and starts. “Serve the Servants,” “Heart-Shaped Box,” the horrific “Rape Me,” the stunning “All Apologies” and the feedback-splayed “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” muster reliably appealing structures. But driller-killers like “Scentless Apprentice,” “Very Ape,” “Milk It,” “Tourette’s” and “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” are explosions of malignant sound rather than vision. The album ends in a round refrain of “All in all is all we are” — a suitably enigmatic (or meaningless, take your pick) coda to what would prove to be the band’s studio finale.
Singles is a British box containing all six UK CD singles from Nevermind and In Utero.
Two months after the release of In Utero, Nirvana taped an episode of MTV Unplugged. Having frightened off some of its fans with holy-terror noise, the group must have relished the thought of rattling punk traditionalists — at least those who had already forgotten the sound of Nevermind‘s “Something in the Way” — with its antithesis. (Paying back the media agency of their initial stardom probably wasn’t a bad hedge, either, especially after In Utero‘s predictable sales shortfall.) A year later, by which time it was obliged to serve as Nirvana’s epitaph, the show’s soundtrack was released as MTV Unplugged in New York.
Taking advantage of the opportunity, the trio — augmented by guitarist Pat Smear (the ex-Germ punk veteran who had joined Nirvana as a touring member in 1993), cellist Lori Goldston and two-thirds of the Meat Puppets — used it to publicly explore other facets of its creative desires. Cobain’s singing is frequently stretched to the breaking point, which only underscores the unguarded atmosphere of this daring triumph. A gentle infusion of air, delicacy and baronial grace illuminates appropriate selections from all three preceding albums (“About a Girl” and “All Apologies” yes, “Teen Spirit” no). Meanwhile, covers of songs by David Bowie (“The Man Who Sold the World”), the Meat Puppets (a trilogy of evidently unsingable tunes from the Arizona band’s II album), Vaselines (“Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam”) and Leadbelly (“Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” a folk standard also known as “In the Pines”) extend the band’s stylistic reach well beyond the constipated brutality of punk. Nirvana had bootstrapped itself to a new plain.
Kurt Cobain died from a self-inflicted shotgun blast at home in Seattle in April 1994. The following year, Dave Grohl recorded an album by himself and then, with Pat Smear, formed a quartet called Foo Fighters around it. Krist Novoselic (who reclaimed the spelling of his given name for In Utero) became involved in anti-censorship political action and convened a trio called Sweet 75. In addition to the success of her group, Hole, Courtney Love — Cobain’s widow — has become famous as the widow of Kurt Cobain.
The yang to Unplugged‘s yin, From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah is a raging full-on live compilation of tracks recorded on various stages in American and Europe between 1989 and 1994 and assembled by Grohl and Novoselic. The versions of “Polly” and “Breed” predate Grohl and so feature drummer Chad Channing; among the surprise songs are “Spank Thru,” a forgotten Sub Pop compilation item from 1988, and “Sliver.”