Everett True

Nirvana’s Nevermind, 20 Years Ago

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By Everett True

It’s taken me nearly two decades to admit to liking Nevermind in public again. Much of this is down to Scott’s incredible evaluation of the album elsewhere on Collapse Board. In celebration, I’ve decided to reprint my original review.

Note the line about Killdozer’s man Butch Vig.

Trios are perfect. Live, and on record. There’s no refuting the fact. When they get the balance right, there’s no stopping them. Think of The Jam, Young Marble Giants, Dinosaur Jr, Hüsker Dü, Cream, The Slits … Nirvana. Trios strip music down to its basics and then, having worked out what it is that makes it work, build it up again with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of effect. Four’s unnecessary. Five is unwieldy. Three is just about perfection.

It’s got to be. The three finest albums to come out of what could be loosely termed ‘the US Collegiate Scene’ have all been made by trios. First there was Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade. Then, Dinosaur Jr’s first, Dinosaur. And now Nevermind, Nirvana’s startling follow-up to their 1989 debut Bleach. Forget all the prejudices you may or may not have about bands whose origins may or may not lie in Seattle’s Sub Pop scene of three years back. There will not be a better straight-ahead rock album than Nevermind released all year.

A lot of this is down to the sheer melody of the songs – songs such as the outrageously plangent ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, which opens this album and blows the listener straight out of the water. Songs such as the two which follow it and make for as strong an opening sequence since that of The Jam’s Setting Sons: the menacingly poignant ‘In Bloom’ with its rapture-full hook line, “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” and the unfathomably wistful ‘Come As You Are’. And how about the acoustic ‘Polly’, with Chris’s gentle lead bass, which finishes side one? But we’re merely talking melody and harmony and tunefulness and all those kind of things you’d more commonly associate with some band with their toes stuck deeply in the Sixties. Nirvana (produced here by Killdozer’s man Butch Vig) have more going for them than that.

Nirvana have power, oozing out of every guitar line and ripped snare – just check side two’s opener, ‘Territorial Pissings’, which wouldn’t have been out of place on Metallica’s latest, or the hyper-ventilating ‘Lithium’. Listen to the turbo-charged ‘Stay Away’, perhaps the only weak link here, or ‘On A Plain’, a raw blister of pain.

Nirvana have emotion, raw emotion, the sort where the singer bares his soul all the way down the line and with the use of but a few simple words and phrases communicates way deeper with the listener than this sort of music is meant to. Take ‘Drain You’ and ‘Lounge Act’, for example, with the words coming from Kurdt Kobain’s cracked, hurt voice almost indecipherable, but dreadfully moving nonetheless. And when he starts screaming, unable to bear whatever demons he sees crushing down on top of him, it’s like your worst nightmares about babies crying and buses crashing and skyscrapers falling come true all at once. Never underestimate the power of a good scream.

When Nirvana released Bleach all those years ago, the more sussed among us figured they had the potential to make an album that would blow every other contender away. My God, have they proved us right.

(Melody Maker, 14 September 1991)

Related posts: Nirvana’s Nevermind, 20 Years Later
We Don’t Have To Breed – Nirvana’s Nevermind and masculinity

3 Responses to Nirvana’s Nevermind, 20 Years Ago

  1. Bert August 25, 2011 at 9:27 am

    Heh, I actually remember reading that. I also recall one of Melody maker’s staff complaining in an editorial (or something like that) how you were constantly playing Nevermind on the office stereo.

    Not that I went out and bought Nevermind after reading that; being a student meant I was on a tight budget and couldn’t afford to buy every album a reviewer in MM or NME gave high marks to.

    Here’s how I “discovered” Nevermind (FYI I live in Belgium): in early October 1991 (IIRC) a bunch of us got together for an evening out, i.e. some heavy drinking. One of my friends, a huge fan of the Pixies, was telling me about how he’d bought this album that was better than anything by The Pixies and that I had to hear it. I promised him that I’d give it a listen the next day but right now we should focus on the booze. Which we did, very enthusiastically — we got very, very drunk.

    Somehow we made it to his place (I was staying with him), and were woken the next morning by his girlfriend who visited him. Both of us had a huge hangover, but he insisted I should listen to this new album, and he put on… Nevermind. I thought it was okay, but actually I was still drunk form last night and also had a huge hangover and I wasn’t paying that much attention.

    Three days later I realized I hadn’t been able to get that album out of my head, so I visited the local record store. Which happened to have a copy in stock. Which I bought — and then played over and over and over again. I doubt I’ve played any other record nearly as much as Nevermind.

    It then dawned on me that I had heard about Nirvana before: not just the reviews I’d read, but they were the opening act of the Pukkelpop festival which had taken place about a month or so before. Except I hadn’t bothered going near the stage to listen to them, and had actually been annoyed that they’d replaced another band (Limbomaniacs, who had canceled their appearance).

    I never saw Nirvana live. Their 1991 gig in Ghent was already sold out by the time I discovered Nevermind. Pukkelpop could have had Nirvana as headliners in 1992 but refused because Kurt insisted on determining the line-up (they’re still kicking themselves for that: the festival organizer said in an interview that this was one of his biggest regrets). And Nirvana’s 1994 gig in Vorst Nationaal in Brussels was canceled after Kurt overdosed in Rome three weeks before.

  2. Darragh August 25, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    ET: An article I’d like to see written on CB – expanding on what you wrote in the review – Are three-people bands still the way to go?

  3. Matt O'Neill August 26, 2011 at 10:40 am

    I think if we’ve learnt anything from the Polyphonic Spree and Arcade Fire, it’s that the more people you put in a band, the more they will suck.

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