Nirvana - Nevermind
"Nevermind", the second studio album of "Nirvana" is celebrating 30 years today !! And you are invited for another review in the "Class of 91'". series, on the masterpiece albums released in that wonderful year.
Many have written and spoken about this album, the revolution it created, the meteoric success it achieved, its tremendous impact, and the alternative tsunami brought with it... an album that tossed Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" from the first place, an album that sold over 30 million copies and during the peak period sold more than 300,000 copies a week. An album that pushed the "Restart" button and rebooted the music world as it was known until the day it was released. An album that pushed the alternative into the heart of the mainstream. An album that unveiled an entire city and placed a monstrous "Xenon" spotlight on it leading to the discovery of other great bands like "Soundgarden", "Alice In Chains" and "Pearl Jam", but not only! Because it also paved the way for bands that operated outside of Seattle, such as "The Smashing Pumpkins" and later "Stone Temple Pilots", as its formidable waves of success resonated outside the United States as well and revolutionized the music world.
It's hard to review an album that has been talked about and written about so much, and yet let's open with a small story ...
In April 1990, less than a year after the release of their debut album "Bleach", "Nirvana" begins work on their next album. Even then it was clear to them that it was going to be a different album. It will transcend the boundaries of hardcore and punk and include more melodic material. Kurt Cobain saw in front of his eyes a combination of heavy "Power Cords" and distorted guitars mixed with tickling melodies. A kind of combination of the influences on him at that time. Mostly "R.E.M.", "Pixies" and "Melvins". The band members decided to work on their next album with producer Butch Vig, as they really liked the heavy sound he gave to the band "Killdozer" (an American hard rock band from the 80s). They traveled to Wisconsin and began working with him on the new album. They managed to record 8 songs in 5 days until everything went wrong (but for the better). Kurt Cobain's vocal cords started to show fatigue and as soon as they recovered (which took several days), they embarked on an intense 24-day tour in 39 days.
After touring, they said goodbye to drummer Chad Channing and decided to use the demos they recorded to find a new record label. Cobain believed that the little record company "Sub Pop" was not right for them and that they needed a bigger company to distribute their music. It was no small matter. As you may recall, "Sub Pop" is the label that was the catalyst attached to the heart of the Grunge scene in Seattle at the time. It was perhaps a smart and quite predictable move for a band that was part of an evolving genre and culture (although no one expected the tsunami that came later), but at the same time, it also makes us wonder what exactly went through Kurt Cobain's mind, as he is known to be very disgusted by success and What it brings with it, so why look for a bigger record company?
"Nirvana", which was courted by quite a few record companies at the time, eventually signed with "DGC" (owned by Geffen). The recommendation came from an old friend - Kim Gordon, bassist of "Sonic Youth". After signing the contract the band members were determined to start recording, but also feared the pressure and involvement of the big and new record company.
The first move taken by "Nirvana" was to reject all of the record company's candidates for the position of producer. They asked to return to work with Butch Vig. Equipped with previous recordings, they went into the mythical studio "Sound City" and started working on the album "Sheep" (yes, yes we did not get confused it was the initially chosen name). Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl, and Kurt Cobain worked hard on the album, with lots of rehearsals before the recordings, lots of recordings of the vocals, and even last-minute writing. After completing the recordings, the members moved on to the mixing stage (where all the elements are combined: musical instruments, effects, editing, and more).
Already in the first stage, they were not satisfied and decided to bring someone else to perform the mix. They received a long and respectable list of candidates from the record company, but for fear of turning the album into something too polished and influenced by the sound of other bands, they simply took the last name on the list, Andy Wallace, who produced "Slayer" albums.
Andy did what he knows to do best and with all sorts of special effects and filters, he completed the craft. Butch Vig and Andy Wallace testified that at first, the band members were very happy with the mixes. However, after the album's release, the band members expressed disgust at the processed sound, with Cobain quoted, in a far-reaching statement, saying that when he listen to the album he really feels embarrassed that it is closer to a "Mötley Crüe" album than to the Punk album.
No matter at what stage in your life you first listened to this album, there is no way you have remained indifferent. It turned you over, kicked you, scratched you off the floor, and played with your guts. This album is full of contrasts and that is what makes it so successful and special. The sound is innovative with elements of retro, the structure of the songs is simple, but also very dynamic and travels between quiet and noisy, the lyrics are sharp and direct, but at the same time vague and fragile and Cobain's voice ranges from clean and smooth to rough and tormented.
The album released four successful singles that burned the charts and aired periodically and non-stop on MTV:
The opening song of the album "Smells Like Teen Spirit" redefined the world of music and became the anthem of an entire generation, which would later be called Generation X, all in just four chords.
The song was written by Kurt Cobain in one moment of anger, after his girlfriend Tobi Vail, from the band "Bikini Kill" dumped him. The title of the song came from graffiti spray-painted by Kathleen Hanna - singer of the band "Bikini Kill", on the wall of Cobain's apartment. She intended to point out the fact that Kurt was “marked now” with the fragrance of his girlfriend's favorite deodorant.
The four chords that Kurt chose to wrap the lyrics of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with, were not innovative, on the contrary, they were recycled chords used in countless rock songs. Cobain noted that he was trying to write a song that sounded like the "Pixies". Even with the rhythm and general feel of the immortal riff, Cobain tried to sound like "More Than A Feeling" by "Boston", which according to his own words was simply cliché. The song did not even have a bridge. But the combination of simplicity, with the roughness and catchy melody, created the "big bang" that changed the face of music forever.
To accompany the song, the band filmed a clip whose idea is based on punk rock kids wreaking havoc in high school, a symbol of everything Cobain has despised since his high school days in Aberdeen. Constant broadcasts of the clip on MTV and repeated playbacks on various radio stations will launch "Nirvana," screaming and kicking, straight to the top of the Billboard 200 and into the heart of the mainstream.
But it did not end there, this song would put an entire city on the world map, as from that day Seattle became synonymous with the Grunge revolution that took place there. Although this song made the band immortal overnight, most of all it was the trigger for a much bigger revolution than a musical one, a cultural revolution of the X generation.
Needless to say, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was ranked No. 9 on Rolling Stone magazine's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" list, it was on the list of the 500 Greatest Songs That Shaped Rock by "Roll Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame" and was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2017. In 2000, the song entered the Guinness Book of Records as the most played song on MTV Europe.
The second track from the album "In Bloom" was released as the fourth and final single and was among the eight songs recorded during a five-day meeting with Butch Vig, in April 1990. The original recording included a passage section (bridge) removed by Butch Vig, using a shaving blade on the master's reel. The original plan to release the song as a single was abandoned after drummer Chad Channing left the band. Instead, the band decided to use the song as a demo tape, which was distributed among the music industry to create interest among major record companies. The song was eventually re-recorded at "Sound City" Studios in May 1991. It was one of the first songs to be worked on during the re-recordings, due to Butch Vig's previous acquaintance with it. Like the other songs recorded in April 1990, the arrangement for this song remained almost unchanged, with Dave Grohl's performance remaining very close to the original. It is interesting to note, that Kurt Cobain opposed any kind of effect in the recording of the album, and when Butch Vig tried to get him to double the singing he of course vehemently refused. To get the double layers on the singing channel Butch was forced to deceive Cobain. He made him think that certain parts of the song were not recorded properly and should be done again. He later proved to him that John Lennon had also done so on the Beatles' albums, until finally Cobain relented and agreed to "thicken" his singing roles, in almost every song on the album. But Vig was not content with that, he decided to make drummer Dave Grohl also sing high harmonies, and double them as with Cobain. At first, Grohl had a hard time getting the high notes, but in the end, he managed to sing exactly how Vig asked him to.
The third track "Come As You Are" was released as the second single from the album. The all-too-famous riff of the song is taken from the 1984 song "Eighties" by "Killing Joke", just plays a little slower. The members of "Killing Joke" thought of suing "Nirvana" for the "loan", but after the death of Kurt Cobain decided to give up. It should be noted that Kurt Cobain was well aware of the "loan". After the release of the album, the band and the management company debated whether to release "Come as You Are" or "In Bloom" as the second single from the album and Kurt preferred "In Bloom" due to his fears about the resemblance to the "Killing Joke" song. Cobain agreed after the management company convinced him that it was a better decision because of the commercial potential. Producer Butch Vig said it's his favorite track from the album and that Cobain uses here the same effect he used in the song "Smells Like Teen Spirit", one that produces the psychedelic trippy sound that sounds like water.
The song "Lithium" was released as the third single from the album. It too was recorded in the first sessions of April 1990 and was one of the reasons why they were discontinued following the loss of Kurt Cobain's voice. It can be said that historically, this song was the trigger for everything that came after. This is the song that created the friction that will eventually lead to the departure of drummer Chad Channing. Cobain was not happy with Channing's drumming in this song and demanded that he performs the drumming he had invented for the song. The tedious work with Channing and the re-recordings left their mark on Kurt Cobain's voice, forcing the band to stop recording. The butterfly effect left starting with the recording of this song continued with the dismissal of Channing and the recruitment of Dave Grohl and later the signing with "DGC" and re-recording of the album thanks to which "Nevermind" sounded as it is.
Speaking of "Lithium", then the hidden track at the end of the album "Endless, Nameless", which begins at 13:51, was accidentally recorded due to frustration on the part of Kurt Cobain who failed to perform the guitar parts of the song "Lithium" properly. Butch Vig who did not stop the recording at the end of the song, decided to save it and the album technician Howie Weinberg accidentally added it at the end of the album.
But this album is definitely not just the four singles released from it.
It has the amazing "Breed" that was originally called "Immodium" - named after the diarrhea drug of Tad Doyle, lead singer of the band "TAD" from Seattle, with whom the band went on tour in 1989, that is when they began to develop the song.
There's also the acoustic "Polly" which is the only song where Dave Grohl gets no credit, but former drummer Chad Channing. There are simply no drums in this song but Chad Channing got credit for the one-time cymbals sound.
Here you will find nervous and fast-paced punk rock such as "Territorial Pissings" which was written during the mixing stage, with the intro of bassist Krist Novoselic singing an excerpt from the song "Get Together" by "Youngbloods" from 1967.
You will also find "Drain You" first recorded during a visit by Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain at Dale Crover drummer The Melvins's house. Butch Vig indicates that this song has the most guitar layers on the album. The strange sounds during the transition segment beginning at 1:35 of the song are performed by Cobain with a variety of toys, including the use of a rubber duck that would later appear on the back cover of the 1992 "Incesticide" collection. This song also mentions "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with the phrase: "I still smell here on you". The title of the song came from the bass intro at the beginning of the song. The band members thought it was something cheesy lounge bands would play. Kurt admitted the song was written about his ex-girlfriend Tobi Vail. The line "I'll arrest myself, I'll wear a shield" refers to Cobain's tattoo on his shoulder with a kind of shield and the letter K painted on it.
The fast-paced and edgy "Stay Away" track that warns us to stay away was originally called "Pay To Play" and ends with the controversial phrase "God is gay" that Cobain spray-painted on a high school classmate's car.
"On a Plain" which is nothing less than a song about "songwriting". Cobain finished writing his lyrics right next to the recording so he includes the phrase "What the hell am I trying to say?" And what do you know, the song even ends with Cobain's A-Capella.
And there's the mesmerizing "Something in the Way" that was originally electric, with the shaky, creepy cello. You can listen to the electric version in Cobain's 2015 "Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings collection". Kurt wrote the song about his life. He is talking about living under a bridge, which he claims happened when he was kicked out of the house and forced to live under a nearby bridge.
Before concluding we will briefly refer to the album cover. The idea was inspired by Cobain's obsession with pregnancy and childbirth (In Utero). Cobain came up with the idea after watching a movie about underwater births, he wanted the album cover to show a picture of real underwater birth, but the record company objected and agreed on a picture of an underwater baby. By the way, the record company tried to censor the penis of the newborn but Cobain insisted and did not agree. The only compromise Cobain agreed to, was to cover the penis with a sticker that read, "If you're offended by this, you must be a pedophile closet." The name of the baby on the album cover is Spencer Elden, who was three months old at the time. The fishing rod and one dollar bill were added to the image afterward. Thirty years after the album's release, Spencer Elden has filed a lawsuit against the band, the photographer, and anyone who co-created the cover for pornography and child exploitation, for not censoring his penis. He demanded 150,000$ from each person sued in this case. This lawsuit was rejected but Spencer went on and filed two more lawsuits until 2022 all the lawsuits were rejected and the case was closed.
The back cover of the album consists of a collage of DANTES INFERNO PAINTINGS created by Cobain, the monkey Chim Chim and a blurry and hidden picture of the band "KISS", a band that Cobain admired when he was a teenager.
The album "Nevermind" was a huge commercial success. It has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling albums of all time. In January 1992 it reached number one on the US Billboard 200 and at the same time in 7 other countries. Beyond commercial success, this is one of the most esteemed albums in the history of music and is found in almost every self-respecting rating list. In 2004, the US Library of Congress added the album to the prestigious National Recording Registry, which incorporates a collection of the most culturally and historically influential recordings in America.