The breakout success of the second Nirvana album was both a gift and a curse for Kurt Cobain
Though Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain privately dreamed of success, in public he adopted a more pragmatic tone.
“I don’t think we’ll get that big, our music isn’t that commercial,” he told a journalist while touring the UK in the fall of 1990. “There’s no way we’ll get as big as Guns N’ Roses.” It was certainly the safer assumption. In 1990 and ’91, the US charts were dominated by the likes of Mariah Carey, MC Hammer, and Garth Brooks, whose Ropin’ the Wind was No. 1 for nearly four months, and would sell over 14 million copies. An indie rock band most people had never heard of was hardly likely to topple those mega-sellers.
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That was the view of DGC, Nirvana’s record company, as well. Sonic Youth’s Goo had managed to sell 118,000 copies, so sales of 50,000 for Nevermind, released on September 24, 1991, seemed a safe bet. Instead, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the album’s first single, “lit a match and started a fire,” as the album’s producer, Butch Vig, put it. Mark Kates, DGC’s head of promotion, watched in astonishment as the single surged in popularity at radio stations across the country, whatever their ostensible format. “KMEL [in San Francisco] decided they had to find a way to play that song — and they were a hip-hop station!” he says. The song’s video swelled interest even further, and by October Nevermind was rising on the Billboard charts, finally reaching the top spot on January 11, 1992.
VIDEO: Nirvana “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
It should have been a moment of triumph for the band. Instead, it marked the beginning of the end. Cobain quickly found that success could be an unexpected burden. He spent the rest of his life trying to resolve the contradiction of being a commercially successful artist while maintaining your artistic integrity. “The fact that he wanted success didn’t mean that he liked all the things he got when it happened,” one of his managers, Danny Goldberg, observed. Depression and escalating drug use culminated in Cobain’s suicide just two years after he’d made the cover of Rolling Stone.
All of which gives the 30th anniversary of Nevermind’s release a bittersweet quality. It was the album that changed everything for the band, for the better, but also for the worse.
“It was so much more than a hit album,” Mark Kates told me in 2011. “It was a moment in time. ‘Teen Spirit’ has been played on the radio every day since we sent out that first single. It has! There was something that was accomplished by that song, and by that album, in terms of reaching people in a way that was completely unimaginable. And somehow Kurt’s pain reached everyone else that had his pain — seemingly so, because there’s really no other explanation for it being that big.
Obviously, yeah, it’s a catchy song, but, you know, so was [Lady Gaga’s] ‘Poker Face’ and I don’t think that’s going to have the same resonance twenty years later. So I think it’s a combination of, the timing was great, and there’s the emotional aspect, which is, I do think, the most important thing, that it just reached people in an inexplicable, deep way. And, you know, I think that’s just what it is; it’s a catchy song, an amazing video, and one of the best albums ever made.”
Kates gets to the heart of Nevermind’s appeal and longevity. Beyond the hype of 1992’s “Year of Grunge,” beyond the mythologizing of Cobain, and beyond the baggage of cultural significance, Nevermind is just a really good album. Cobain, always Nirvana’s primary creative force, had finally perfected his musical blend of pop, punk, and metal, crafting songs that were compelling, powerful, and timeless.
In its original vinyl and cassette incarnations, side one in particular is breathtaking in its perfection. Consider the lineup: “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “In Bloom,” “Come As You Are,” “Breed,” “Lithium,” and “Polly.” It takes some nerve to front load your album with its three strongest tracks, but Nirvana was swinging for the fences. “Teen Spirit” pairs its wry observation of generational apathy to irresistibly invigorating music. “In Bloom” brilliantly lampoons the band’s own audience with a catchy chorus they can’t resist singing along to, not realizing it’s at their own expense. “Come As You Are” languorously weighs contradictions (take your time, hurry up) in a dreamy haze.
From that sterling opening, the full-on assault of the tortured “Breed” is neatly followed by the loping beat of “Lithium,” a deceptively melodic portrait of madness. The first act comes to a close with “Polly,” a spare, acoustically-based narrative sung from the perspective of a rapist, whose detachment from his crime adds to the horror.
If Nevermind’s second half doesn’t quite attain the dazzling heights of its first half, the bracing performances — the band’s skill as musicians is too often overlooked — more than compensate. “Territorial Pissings” is as much a musical changing of the guard as “Teen Spirit,” Krist Novoselic’s opening off-kilter warble of the Youngbloods’ “Get Together” firmly consigning baby boomer platitudes to the dustbin of history. Seeking to distance himself from “Teen Spirit”’s acclaim, Cobain would later cite the twisted, poppy love song “Drain You” as a superior number to Nirvana’s signature hit. “Lounge Act” becomes supercharged when Cobain’s voice leaps an octave for the final verse; “Stay Away” echoes “Breed” in its up tempo drive and lyrical paranoia (nice provocation in the closing “God is gay!” scream too). “On A Plain” was hastily written during the sessions to fill out the album, and though seemingly a nonsense song, it nonetheless contains a few veiled autobiographical references.
“Something in the Way” is the devastating closer, another acoustic number, that’s lyrically bleak and bereft of hope. Perhaps to keep from ending on such a down note, the band threw in a surprise hidden track on the CD, the jam “Endless, Nameless,” that comes on after ten minutes of silence. The album’s pacing is another strong point. From the raging joy of “Teen Spirit” to the despair of “Something in the Way,” the songs chart a path of fear tempered by sarcasm, and depression leavened by humor.
VIDEO: Nirvana performs “Endless Nameless” at The Paramount, 1991
Cobain’s elliptical lyrics tended to focus on emotional themes as opposed to telling a literal story. He quickly tired of having his lyrics picked over and scrutinized, and began to disavow that his songs had much in the way of deeper meaning. Still, he gave as good an explanation as any about Nevermind’s songs to his biographer, Michael Azerrad: “They are all basically saying the same thing. I have this conflict about good and evil and man and woman and that’s about it.”
And there’s also a couplet in “Teen Spirit” that succinctly, if unintentionally, summarizes the band’s own story:
I’m worse at what I do best
and for this gift I feel blessed
Our little group has always been
and always will until the end
Cobain’s musical gifts made his dreams of success come true. But then success turned out to be just another problem to have to contend with. It’s why his post-Nevermind work would be more self-conscious. Nevermind was the last time Cobain was able to create out of the spotlight. Meaning that for all of its darkness, there’s also an innocence to the album, the very innocence depicted in the cover shot of the baby reaching for a dollar bill, purity on the verge of corruption (an image that now has some baggage of its own). Perhaps that corruption is an inevitable part of maturity. Nevermind tries to suspend that last moment before the descent into compromise as long as possible. And it’s that defiant high-wire act that continues to make the album such an enthralling experience.