Note from Jason: Wow, I procrastinated a lot on this one. This issue was like 90% done for weeks. The last 10% was the hardest – putting the focused listen into words. Maybe it’s because SO much has been written about Nirvana, I didn’t think I could do it justice? Anyway, here it is… I will attempt to follow up with another issue this month to get back on track. Thanks for reading!
1991 was a huge year for music – I’m thinking we’ll be stuck here for the next few issues, as there are a number of crucial records I really need to include in this project and it just happens to be the 30th anniversary. Nirvana’s Nevermind and A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory will definitely make the cut for me.
Other classic records out that year: My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, Slint’s Spiderland, The Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish, Fugazi’s Steady Diet of Nothing, Sepultura’s Arise, Geto Boy’s We Can’t Be Stopped, De La Soul’s De La Soul is Dead, my most underrated album of the 90s: God Fodder by Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, and many more — I could keep going.
This issue I’ll focus on the album that made the biggest impact of all those listed above: Nirvana’s Nevermind. Released on September 24th, the album knocked pop music off the charts – taking over the #1 slot from Michael Jackson on the Billboard 200 in early 1992. Over 24 million copies have been sold and it’s obviously on many “best of” lists – including #17 on Rolling Stone’s all-time top 500 list. Beyond the mainstream success of Nirvana, this album inspired and opened the gateway to success for many, many alternative rock bands from that point forward.
I received the cassette version for Christmas that year. It turns out, I wasn’t alone:
Nevermind had its best sales period during Christmas week of 1991, when it sold a spectacular 374,000 copies in a mere seven-day frame
Like most of us at the time, I was sucked in by “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the short ride. Overall, I think Nirvana epitomized the Gen X experience: noisy, angsty sly sarcasm, and enough hooks to get you through it all. As a teenager, you couldn’t ask for anything more.
Beyond music, Nirvana obviously wasn’t the reason we moved to Seattle in 1999, but the introduction to the Seattle music scene was a huge selling point. We lived in Seattle for five years and enjoyed many bands during that time at some of the classic Seattle venues: The Crocodile, Showbox, Paramount, Rock Candy, Neumos, El Corazon/Graceland/many other names, Cha Cha Lounge, The Comet, Paradox, and many more. The 1999 to 2004 period was amazing for us in terms of shows – I can’t imagine experiencing all of the scene history that pre-dated that time.
Anyway, enough of the blathering – we all know Nirvana and Nevermind – let’s get on to the focused listen! (I just hope I can do it justice – so much has been written about this band.)
Smells Like Teen Spirit
The debut single off Nevermind, it was certainly the song (and regularly played video) that jumpstarted the success of the album. Not to mention help it become one of the most recognizable songs of the last 30 years. In fact, Rolling Stone named it #9 on the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Turns out, Nirvana was trying to rip off The Pixies (another of my favorite bands). Cobain in a Rolling Stone interview from January 1994:
I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.
Lyrically, Nirvana is one of those bands that seem to have two distinct camps: one group that think it’s all non-sensical to fit the melodies and cadence and another group that dissects every single line for meaning. To me, I think the non-sensical has a purpose for Cobain, so I lean toward the “find meaning” camp in most songs. (When this project is complete, you’ll notice I tend to love bands that have meaningful lyrics, if you haven’t already.)
As a shy introvert, my favorite part of this song has to be:
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
I don’t think there are many songs that sum up that feeling for me as well as this one does… the constant feeling of having to entertain others just to be heard, the feeling of failure when you aren’t heard, and finding those “dark” places where you can feel comfortable being yourself. It’s quite perfect.
In the end, it’s hard to not say this is the best song on the album, given all of the accolades, though I think “Drain You” is a very close second.
Another video I remember seeing a lot on MTV. The song was an ode to the fans the jumped on the Nirvana bandwagon, yet didn’t understand anything about them – which became commonplace for alternative/underground rock bands in the 90s, think Rage Against the Machine, Fugazi, and the like…
The best part is the song is so damn catchy and easy to sing-a-long to — it’s the perfect honey trap.
He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun
But he don’t knows not what it means
Don’t knows what it means, when I say
He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun
But he don’t know what it means, don’t know what it means, and I say, “Yeah”
Come As You Are
Originally intended to be the main single on Nevermind, it was put on the backburner after the surprise success of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
I get why “management” picked this song as the lead single, since it has a low key, catchy almost sonic feel to it. It’s a good, safe song. Though in context of the rest of the album and Bleach before it, I think it’s a pretty non-representative sample of who Nirvana was at the time. Maybe I am wrong – I’m not a millionaire music executive after all. 🙂
Come as you are, as you were
As I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend
As an old enemy
Take your time, hurry up
Choice is yours, don’t be late
Take a rest as a friend
As an old memoria
This song could be on Bleach – it’s certainly the most caustic, aggressive song on the album. Lyrically, Cobain focuses on getting stuck in the stereotypical “middle America” life:
Even if you have, even if you need
I don’t mean to stare, we don’t have to breed
We could plant a house, we could build a tree
I don’t even care, we could have all three
“Lithium” is a perfect description of manic depression, where every line is both happy and sad, up and down, while having references to God recalling when Kurt lived with a devout Christian family.
Musically, Cobain once again goes the Pixies route – I’d argue even more so than “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. It’s certainly catchy.
My favorite section of lyrics:
I’m so happy ’cause today I found my friends, they’re in my head
I’m so ugly, that’s okay, ’cause so are you, we broke our mirrors
Sunday mornin’ is every day for all I care and I’m not scared
Light my candles in a daze ’cause I’ve found God
This is probably my least favorite song on the album, though I learned something new about it:
This song is about the actual kidnapping of a 14-year-old girl. In 1987, she was returning from a concert in Tacoma, Washington when she was abducted by a man named Gerald Friend. He took her back to his mobile home and raped her. The girl, whose name was not released, was tortured with a whip, a razor, and a blowtorch. She managed to escape when Friend took her for a ride and stopped for gas. He was arrested and sent to jail.
Lyrically, you can certainly hear that story after learning of the background.
The most traditional punk song on the record – fast and aggressive. Lyrically, Cobain stuck with that theme as well, focusing the rage on the mistreatment of Native Americans and women. From Cobain:
On one hand “Territorial Pissings” references Native Americans – people smashed by raging attacks. And at the same time it’s about appreciating woman.. I hate the violence they suffer, the daily injustices for belonging to a different sex.
It all starts with the classic opening – spontaneously included by Krist Novoselic – which was directed at the Baby Boomer generation since they seem to have forgotten the ideals The Youngbloods sang about in the classic hippie anthem “Get Together” from the 60s:
Come on, people, now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another right now
My second favorite song on the album. The chorus just ripping through while Cobain sings:
One baby to another says, “I’m lucky to have met you”
I don’t care what you think unless it is about me
It is now my duty to completely drain you
I travel through a tube and end up in your infection
It’s the classic Nirvana sound that I love.
The next two songs kind of do the same thing for me – similar vibe (generally a loud, catchy ripper) – though I probably prefer Lounge Act of the two, since it’s got more dynamics and better lyrics:
And I’ve got this friend, you see who makes me feel
And I wanted more than I could steal
I’ll arrest myself, I’ll wear a shield
I’ll go out of my way to make you a deal
We’ll make a pact to learn from who
Ever we want without new rules
And we’ll share what’s lost and what we grew
They’ll go out of their way to prove they still
Smell her on you
They still smell her on you
Smell her on you
In fact the lyrics from Lounge Act are probably the most straightforward on the album – almost traditional, well as traditional as Cobain would get on this album.
Another ripper, with the controversial ending: “God is gay.”
In a 1993 interview with The Advocate, Cobain claimed that he was “gay in spirit” and “probably could be bisexual.” He also stated that he used to spray paint “God Is Gay” on pickup trucks in the Aberdeen area—he did attend church throughout his youth, but became dissatisfied with religion.
On A Plain
Another one of my favorites, with some of the catchiest riffs on the album. It definitely lays the foundation for many alternative bands to come. I can hear bits of Weezer and The Posies to name just a few.
I’ll start this off without any words
I got so high, I scratched till I bled
I love myself better than you
I know it’s wrong so what should I do?
The finest day that I’ve ever had
Was when I learned to cry on command
Love myself better than you
I know it’s wrong so what should I do? (Ooh, ooh)
Something In The Way
A mellow and mournful end to the official track listing.
Underneath the bridge
Tarp has sprung a leak
And the animals I’ve trapped
Have all become my pets
And I’m living off of grass
And the drippings from the ceiling
It’s okay to eat fish
‘Cause they don’t have any feelings
Overall, I’m pleasently surprised how well this album held up over the years. It’s a classic for sure and definitely one of most important albums of my generation.
Since this album had such a huge impact, I also asked some internet friends for a tweet-length reaction from their 1991 self:
P.J. Hagerty (@aspleenic on Twitter)
This is something different. Do I like this? It’s so messy, but at the same time precise at channeling emotion. I think I like this. Someone understands my rage and confusion!
Odd-Egil Auran (@odd on Micro.blog)
I was excited like I hadn’t since about 1988 about something that sounded heavy, although at the time I didn’t know it was the death of Heavy Metal as I knew it.
Guillaume Barillot (@gbarillot on Twitter)
Honestly, my first impression was: “mmmh, fine, nothing fancy but I like the songs. This album won’t change the world, I dont get all that hype”(disclaimer: for me in 1991 the revolution was RHCP blood sugar sex magic)
As someone who spent his teenage years in and around the NYC punk scene of the early 1980’s, my first thought was “See, I knew punk wasn’t dead!”
Hjalmer Duenow (@hjalm on Micro.blog)
1991 I worked in a record store. I didn’t get why lightning struck for Nirvana over many other bands that sounded similar on the same record label or from the same scene. They had some nice hooks and that Butch Vig sound.
Since Nirvana is this month’s featured artist, we’ll focus on rock music from 1991 – such a diverse mix of sounds in the (mostly) alternative scene. Enjoy! Listen on Apple Music.
- Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
- Rusty Cage – Soundgarden
- Reclamation – Fugazi
- When You Sleep – My Bloody Valentine
- I Am One – The Smashing Pumpkins
- Alive – Pearl Jam
- Arise – Sepulture
- Underlord – Into Another
- P.S. New York is Burning – Jawbreaker
- Impossible Figure – Jawbox
- Spectra Sonic Sound – Nation of Ulysses
- Kill Your Television – Ned’s Atomic Dustbin
- Strong Reaction – Pegboy
- Selfish – Seaweed
- Red House – Shudder to Think
- Seed Toss – Superchunk
- Gun – Uncle Tupelo
- Enter Sandman – Metallica
- One – U2
- Losing My Religion – R.E.M.
- Alec Eiffel – Pixies
- Mouth Breather – The Jesus Lizard
- The Concept – Teenage Fanclub
- Rave Down – Swervedriver
- Counting Backwards – Throwing Muses
- Stickin in My Eye – NOFX
- Alice Said – Screaming Trees
- Little Bones – The Tragically Hip
- Whatever’s Cool With Me – Dinosaur Jr.
- Running Like Thieves – Bold
- Nosferatu Man – Slint
- Those Who Fear Tomorrow – Integrity
- Values and Instabilities – 4 Walls Falling
Here are some new releases I’ve been listening to and enjoying:
- Today We’re the Greatest by Middle Kids (Listen)
- Life in Your Glass World by Citizen (Listen)
- The Seed, The Vessel, The Roots and All by New Pagans (Listen)
- Selective Punches: A Collection of Ballads & Battle Hymns by No Escape (Listen)
- Sweep It Into Space by Dinosaur Jr. (Listen)
- The Million Masks of God by Manchester Orchestra (Listen)
- Follow my Best of 2021 playlist on Apple Music
And some older releases that have made it back into regular rotation:
- Floral Green by Title Fight (Listen)
- 500wattburner@seven by Sparkmarker (Listen)
- Brutalism by IDLES (Listen)
Musical Moving Pictures
Manchester Orchesta – Keel Timing off their upcoming album. Pre-ordered!
Open Mike Eagle and El-P talk about El-P’s career from Company Flow to Run the Jewels. I was super into Def Jux back in the early 2000s, especially El-P, Mr. Lif, and Aesop Rock, so it was amazing to hear about it first hand. A must listen if you are into indie hip hop.
That wraps up the sixth issue. Feel free to send me feedback, questions, ideas — anything. I’d also love if you shared this newsletter with anyone you think would enjoy and encourage them to subscribe.
See you next time.