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Seattle Decisions: Part 4 - Nirvana
But is 'Nevermind' actually any good?
This was the first CD I ever bought.
It wasn’t the first CD I owned. That was a Queen compilation album I received as a gift along with my first discman. But ‘Nevermind’ was the first album I ever walked into a music shop to buy. I nearly purchased it on cassette about a year before I finally got it, but I went for a different album that time.
This was back in 92 or early 93 and at that stage I had heard all the singles from the album. As I’ve mentioned previously, there were no streaming services back then and you had to resort to extreme measures to acquire an eclectic music collection (as detailed in my previous post where I committed crimes against the music industry to get new music).
I can’t recall now how many of the other songs had seeped into the public consciousness at that point. So what did the 14/15 year old Aquanaut think of the greatest rock album of the 90s when he first heard it?
I remember being a little underwhelmed.
At that stage I had binged ‘Ten’ by Pearl Jam, ‘Dirt’ by Alice in Chains, and other non-Seattle albums like ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magic’ by the ‘Chilis and the Black album by Metallica. ‘Nevermind’ wasn’t an instant classic in my (albeit tiny and inexperienced) book. It was an album that fell into a category I wasn’t familiar with back then.
It invited a re-listen. And not because it was wall to wall bangers, but because it took a few unexpected turns.
The album explodes to a start with three singles. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ‘In Bloom’ and ‘Come As You Are’ had already become stadium and radio anthems at that stage. Track 4, ‘Breed’ is a rocker. It’s faster and angrier than the three songs that precede it. It’s followed by ‘Lithium’, which became the actual anthem that teens had been looking for without knowing it. Then there is track 6.
It’s a short acoustic track with minimal bass and percussion. I recall skipping it (it was a CD, I could skip tracks for the first time ever) quite frequently. Then I found out what it was about. Then I had to give it a proper listen.
‘Polly’ was likely the first ‘difficult’ track I ever became aware of. The subject matter of ‘Polly’ is horrific and I’m not going to debate whether or not songs like that should be recorded. The fact is that ‘Polly’ was recorded, released, and performed live (many times). Allegedly Bob Dylan was a fan of the song back then. The track makes for extremely uncomfortable listening, as unlike contemporary songs about sexual assault (like ‘Me and a Gun’ by Tori Amos), it’s from the point of view of the perpetrator.
Side B follows much the same format as the first, though the songs are more experimental sounding. ‘Territorial Pissings’ is an absolute raging scorcher of an opener. ‘Drain You’ could be regarded as Nirvana venturing into psychedelic rock. ‘Lounge Act’ and ‘Stay Away’ are rather excellent hard rock tunes. ‘On a Plain’ another one with a dash of psych rock. The album is capped off by ‘Something in the Way’, another acoustic track and actually features a cello. It’s one of my favourite Nirvana tracks and I’m rather fond of their electric renditions of the tune.
Bizarrely ‘Something In The Way’ charted again this year as it was featured in the trailer and in the movie ‘The Batman’.
About two years after I bought the album, I was playing the CD on my stereo out the window of our family home, while I did some teenage chores in the garden. After ‘Something in the Way’ ended I started mowing the lawn. Then I heard something erupt from the stereo after ten minutes. I ran back inside and tried to decipher what was happening to the stereo. It had gone mad. I guessed the laser had skipped or something. My father was also standing there with a less than impressed look on his face. I was stunned. This was my first experience of a secret song.
‘Nevermind’ is a great rock album.
Is it the best album that came out of Seattle in the late 80s or early 90s? Maybe not. It might not even be the best Nirvana album. But with its stripped down sound, and raw, primal rage, it encapsulated the rejection of the commercial, radio friendly, unit shifters that preceded it. The irony that it became the best selling album of the grunge era, was not lost on anyone, least of all the band who recorded it.
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ‘Come As You Are’, ‘In Bloom, ‘Lithium’, ‘Polly’ and perhaps even ‘Something In The Way’ are instantly recognisable tunes to people who never even owned the album. It introduced us to a great bass player in Krist Novoselic, an exceptionally talented young drummer in David Grohl, and an amazing songwriter, musician and (reluctant) teen icon in Kurt Cobain.
‘Nevermind’ is the early 90s sound for most people. It’s been nice to revisit it for this article and it’s going back on heavy rotation in the Aquanaut’s sub-oceanic lair.
Next Post: While many Hard Rock and Metal bands struggled in the aftermath of the grunge explosion, Motörhead recorded an album called ‘Bastards’.