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Nirvana – Nevermind [Album Review]

March 28, 2012

Smells Like Teen Spirit / In Bloom / Come As You Are / Breed Lithium / Polly / Territorial Pissings / Drain You / Lounge Act / Stay Away / On a Plain / Something in the Way

The band had early on made quite an impression at the annual Pukkelpop festival (Belgium) and a month earlier, got quite some buzz, and I wanted the album ASAP. And I liked it a lot. I thought it was a masterpiece, until I’d had enough of it suddenly, and didn’t play it for a few years. Now, a dozen years later, I still like the album, but with more reservations. It is probably a common enough story in music history that albums that appeal to almost a whole generation (like London Calling 24 years ago, or Sgt. Pepper’s 36 years ago), don’t seem to be able to live up to their reputation. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a winner, though. The guitar that introduces the song still gives me a weird feeling that sends me back to my first listen (too bad I get this feeling less and less). It’s the ideal (teen) anthem: it rocks, it has great hooks, and it’s memorable. People have said parts of it were directly stolen from the Pixies’ “Debaser” or Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” or partly influenced by Hüsker Dü and The Police.

Well, I’m not convinced. I guess some comparisons could lead to a “Yeah, it does resemble…” but it’s no more the case than loads of other songs that are influenced by their peers’ accomplishments. Also, the rest of the songs show that the band had moved much more towards ‘mainstream’ rock since Bleach: “In Bloom” has some catchy verses and a loud, sing-along verse (“Heeeeeeeeee’s the one who likes all our pretty songs…”). All this suggests that the band not only had notorious indie bands like the Wipers, Flipper, and Dinosaur Jr as prime examples, but also more melodic rock acts such as Cheap Trick and the Beatles. Another great track is “Breed,” which has some great greasy bass work, crunchy guitars, propulsive drumming, and a killer chorus. The album’s other energy-blast is “Territorial Pissings,” which is about the only song on this album that could qualify as ‘punk’ (using the clichéd definition of “fast and aggressive rock song that speeds ahead so fast you’re ruining the seat cover”). Some mighty guitars (the galloping part could very well come from that band’s “Turn On the News”), a drum assault by Dave Grohl, and some riveting vocals by Novoselic introduce the song.

“Come As You Are” and “Lithium” are, besides the first track, the most well known songs on this  very album, and rightly so. However, I have really heard these two tracks too much. Certainly “Come As You Are” seems a bit  annoying to me now. It has become somewhat of a drag to listen to. “Lithium”, however, has that “Yeah yeah yeah”-chorus that does the trick, but it could have been shorter. Or maybe I’m just forgetting we’re dealing with an anthem, and they’re supposed to go on for too long. A song everyone seems to like is “Polly”, and I can see why: the song offers a nice contrast to the powerful stuff at the beginning of the album, the lyrics aren’t very lightweight (and seem to be dealing with rape), there are some spooky backing vocals, etc., but somehow it doesn’t appeal to me anymore. Instead, I prefer the even more drugged-sounding “Something In the Way,” which is more subdued, moody and enigmatic, and is a great album closer. Perfect Nirvana.

The rest of the songs on the album (tracks 8-11, the song order could definitely have been better) are not that impressive. “Drain You” is catchy and has a great middle part with a cool climax, “Lounge Act” has some nice bass work and leans more towards the folksier guitar-pop of the Lemonheads (or is that far-fetched?), “Stay Away” is raunchy, features some cool call-and-response verses, but an annoying chorus, and “On a Plain” is good, but nothing more than that. Than why the hell is this considered a classic album? Well, I don’t know for sure, but it was probably a good example of “the right album at the right time”. The album is loud enough to annoy those who hate rock (an important factor when you’re 15). At the same time it has loads of pop hooks, and an overall attitude/message of disillusion that appeals to kids looking for answers even today. Although the band took its energetic conviction from listening to lots of punk music, it replaced idealism with indifference. The amount of self-hatred on this album is massive, but whereas someone like Henry Rollins (whose obsession with pain, hatred and solitude must have influenced Cobain) would turn it into a life force to feed on, Cobain seems to celebrate its fatality and uses the  uselessness of trying to change anything (we’re dealing with an album called “Nevermind”, right?).

An album that is guaranteed to appeal to music fans all over the world, because of its clever mix of almost-noise (although the album sounds very ‘clean’ a dozen years after its release, leading to the presumption that the guys at DGC knew they’d just found something new) and catchy choruses, Nevermind is a very good, but somewhat uneven album that has become a classic, but not only on the basis of the quality of the music, since certainly the second part of the album suffers from some unremarkable song-writing. On the other hand, it’s not the hugely overrated album some people claim it to be now (a common backlash). Just try to forget the stories, the hype, all those delirious reviews and enjoy it for what it is: a very good album by a very good band.

Note: Most copies around (not mine) seem to have a hidden track at the end, “Endless Nameless.” I heard it, and I’m glad my album ends with “Something In the Way.” just saying.

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