Updated: Oct 2, 2020
Alas, Nirvana’s monstrous bastard-child of Boston’s ‘More Than A Feeling’ and punk rock, ‘Smell Like Teen Spirit’ has turned 29.
(This article first appeared in Far Out Magazine, 24/9/2020 faroutmagazine.co.uk/nirvana-nevermind-songs-ranked)
This is the same amount of time between Nevermind's release and that of the Beatles’ seemingly prehistoric debut, Please Please Me. Feeling old yet?
I, like most ancient beings, have aged terribly. My cover’s all bent and there are tea stains all over my inner sleeve; has Nirvana’s Alt-flagship work faired any better?
It’s worth remembering, if you’re old enough to, what the musical landscape looked like in the early 1990's. This was an age where dinosaurs still roamed the earth: MichaelBoltonosaurs vied with CliffRichardodocuses for top 10 dominance whilst the ThreeTenorsourus Rex’s roared their way to massive chart success. In September 1991, as the Vinyl was being pressed, Mark Mark and the Funky Bunch were on the rise and Bryan Adams was finally starting his slow descent into hell with Everything I do (I do it for you). However, Alternative underground scence’s destructive asteroid was about to wipe them off the face of the earth.
The watershed moment for Alternative Music (America’s precursor to Britpop, which was a response to it) was the release of Nirvana’s lead single for their new collection. Radio and MTV caught wind and before long, the mainstream was on its knees, begging for mercy.
For better or worse, popular music was never quite the same again.
Nevermind remains one of those rare and surprisingly ‘perfect’ pop moments. With barely a spare second across its thirteen tracks (12 on vinyl, with a secret track on the CD - Nameless Endless), the songs range from blistering punk to discordant folk. Displaying all the elements of the niche and uncommercial but instead delivering a rapidly maturing melodicist in Kurt Cobain. He looked, played and sang like he was being burnt alive, but wrote like Paul McCartney in a bad mood. Its Butch Vig produced pop-sheen may have aged the album a touch, but the songs are timeless. Here, I rank them in an entirely subjective order of preference .
13. Nameless Endless
The sound of Kurt Cobain stubbing his toe whilst and bursting into flames whilst Krist Novoselic tunes his bass down 28 semitones into Hell. A disposable track, If there is such a thing on Nevermind.
12. Territorial Pissings.
Full of shimmering DI’d guitar distortion and rage, ‘Pissings’ highlights Kurt’s development as a songwriter. By 1991, even when writing in the idiom of detachment and paranoia, Cobain was incapable of producing anything but sparkling melody. Had this been written a year before, it would have been a dirge of heavy riffs. His anger now had a voice.
Kurt somehow turned this screamed, extended couplet into a hummable ditty:
“When I was an alien, cultures weren’t opinions….Never met a wise man, if so it’s a woman”
A key ingredient to the song’s success, though one of the slightest tracks the band ever recorded post-Bleach, is the addition of Dave Grohl’s powerhouse drumming. For all Cobain’s talent, Nirvana would have been significantly less, and were, without the future Foo Fighter’s power and grace around a kit.
11. Stay Away.
Territorial Pissings’ better looking sister. The song has the same message - go away, stay there. Initially called Pay To Play, it was repurposed and repackaged to warn a potentially new audience and new found popularity that this man wasn’t for sale. Aware that he was becoming a commodity, Kurt Cobain wanted to make the message defy interpretation. Savage & simple.
10. Something In The Way
Recorded on a 4 string charity shop guitar on a run through for Butch Vig, the band spent more time than apparently necessary de-tuning their instruments to match the feel and sorrow expressed in this stripped down performance.
Not to be mistaken for the James Taylor inspired song of the same name, 'Something in the Way' is a love song to solitude. Kurt professed to literally living under a Washington State bridge after being made homeless by both sets of Grandparents after his parents' divorce, but this is most likely self-mythologising from Cobain, using metaphor to express his feeling of isolation, and finding beauty in unlikely places. Stark beauty ending an album of passionate fury, there was something happening with this 23 year old, and the world was on tenterhooks, waiting to see what would come next.
With still eight more songs to go, we’re already at pop-masterpiece territory. Most bands' best song, Breed (originally titled Imodium after the constipation medication) releases the valve of pressure and sprays savagely played pop music all over us. There’s little point in trying to interpret Kurt’s lyrics, they’re so obtuse as to be nonsense, but the attack of the bass and drumming makes for an electric mix of intent and melody. Kurt Cobain being silly, and I’m all for it. A banger.
8. Come As You Are
The moment Nirvana sound crept out from beneath America’s underground. The chorus laden guitar riff was a nod to ’80s pop and a sound he’d use liberally across all of Nevermind; Kurt was now writing accessible songs your dad could sing. The video was the 1990’s distilled into a concentrate so strong, a single drop could kill all members of Aerosmith at forty paces.
The lyric is a call to all those who found themselves at the fringes of American/Western society to join in, be themselves and swing from a chandelier. One of Cobain’s first denials of owning a gun.
7. On A Plain
Unabashed, straight up pop/rock. Cobain was shedding melody as effortlessly as a a forty-something ex-grunger sheds his hairline. His mother, upon hearing Nevermind on cassette before being released, broke down in tears.
“You better buckle up, ‘cos you are not ready for this” - Wendy Cobain
Kurt was writing about getting high (as if heroin were pot) and hurting himself, but singing with a smile and a wink. Always cynical and sarcastic, it’s easy to take him too literally or not at all, but he had a plan from the age of 14 to be the world’s biggest rock star and immediately blow his head off. He was warning us, years before the event. That it made great pop music is its own reward.
Alternative Music’s ‘Wonderwall’. This is the song all the interesting boys play on guitars at parties.
“It’s from the rapists point of view” - interesting boys
“The Kid has heart” - Bob Dylan on Kurt Cobain after hearing Polly.
This is one of those songs that stops you in your tracks upon first hearing, but suffers from diminishing returns. You end up happily singing along with a sex offender, laughing about chasing a girl through a field after letting her escape for sport.
Cobain’s lyrics were often so cryptic that some of the more direct ones could slip past you unnoticed, but this one sticks out like a sore thumb. Beautiful writing that would be clumsy and insensitive in anyone else’s hands.
5. Drain You
Kurt Cobain’s favourite Nirvana song and possessor of one of the greatest drops in popular music. Fitting, because the song's about possession - a parasitic love. Drain You is the lighter, more tuneful precursor of Milk It from In Utero, which revisits a similar theme from a much darker corner.
Known for its blistering live performances, this represents everything that was peak commercial Nirvana. Deceptively light with dark undertones, furious and brilliant.
Here's a mostly unseen Unplugged performance of Drain You.
4. In Bloom
Aware of his growing popularity and more aware of the hypocrisy of the type of people that began to show up to Nirvana shows, Kurt loved to poke a finger at the Jocks and Jockettes that constituted part of his new fanbase. Here now were the gun toting rednecks, ignorant to the foundations of his world view and swaying their heads to the songs he was writing about the isolation that, he felt, they forced upon him.
“He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs
And likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means”
Again, through his frustration and anger came melodic writing that would make Neil Finn blush. This is nothing but a stone cold classic pop song.
3. Smells Like Teen Spirit.
The song I blame for all my early and entirely unsuccessful attempts at being a rock star. Riff ripped from ‘More Than A Feeling’ and ‘Loui Loui’, surely a non-accidental nod to all the bands he didn’t want to be in, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ hurtled the band into the mainstream. Picked up by everyone and everything, the song may be more famous than the band now, in 2020. But biggest doesn’t mean best.
It is a monster though: a songwriting masterclass in dynamics, performance and recording. Drums that kick your ears in and a bass line so hooky that Mr & Mrs Hook named their son Peter after it, it was destined to be a smash hit from the moment it was written. Kurt knew it too, and disowned it as soon as it was released claiming it a Pixies ripp off. That it was better than anything the Pixies ever did (I love the Pixies) says everything about the vein of form Cobain was in during this phase of his career. Arranged by Novoselic and Grohl, it is Nevermind’s only Cobain-Novoselic-Grohl credited song.
Here's Kurt giving the producers of Top of the Pops a minor nervous breakdown after being forced to sing along to a backing track.
2. Lounge Act.
Written about Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vai, Kurt’s girlfriend before THAT girlfriend, ‘Lounge Act’ is every amateur singer/guitarist/frontman’s worst nightmare.
Written with a simple 3 chord structure, it’s simplicity is its secret weapon. A melody so lovely, and so progressively attacked, it deceives you into thinking you can perform it until Kurt goes up a key and his wild vocal abandon leaves you screaming out of key into a microphone wishing you’d decided to learn the bass. OK, this is from personal experience, but Cobain’s performance on this wonderfully simple song is of the type that his reputation hangs.
Had he lived beyond 27, I often wonder if he’d have been able to maintain this throat ripping, in tune, screaming. Looking at someone like Liam Gallagher, it’s unlikely, but this performance secures his reputation as one of rock’s great emoters. This is’t just a scream, it’s something pulled kicking and screaming from the soul.
The vocal take alone puts this song in the pantheon of great Nirvana tracks, but the all round performance, melody and arrangement puts it firmly in a God Like tier of pop rock.
About as perfect a description of manic depression as I’ve heard put into song, ‘Lithium’ is amongst the most rousing and affecting songs Nirvana ever released.
“I’m so lonely, that’s OK, I shaved my head and I’m not sad
And just maybe, I’m to blame for all I’ve heard, but I’m not sure
I’m so excited, I can’t wait to meet you there, and I don’t care
I’m so horny, that’s OK my will is good”
At 4 minutes and 17 seconds, it’s epic scope and range of emotions makes it feel twice the length and ten times the size. Sad, angry, funny. All delivered with utter conviction. Again, utilising the ‘Pixies’ quiet/loud dynamic seen in ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, but to greater effect, this is a pop song of truly breathtaking quality. Due in large part to Butch Vig’s production, Nirvana sound every inch the ‘biggest band in the world’ here.
This is the only song that Nirvana recorded to which Dave Grohl had to play to a click track, upon Vig's instruction. It was a tense moment, but the chorus refrain kept driving the tempo forward and Butch wouldn't let it slide.
A vocal performance that defies imitation, on Lithium Cobain demonstrates an ability to emote via a scream whilst managing to stay in tune despite singing with an astonishing reckless abandon.
I can only think of one other band who uses the word ‘Yeah’ so effectively, and that’s high praise indeed.
Here he is screaming into a manic Reading Festival audience at THAT iconic show.