• Old 'Stache

The Album That Made ‘Alternative’ Pop

written by: on September 19, 2011

During that balmy suburban summer 10 years ago, I listened to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” every day. I was 14 at the time, and was playing the song backward every time.

Now, on the album’s 20th anniversary, Nirvana’s middle record Nevermind is as dirty and shiny as it was in 1991, with nothing but demented pop songs that showed the public a new kind of hit that would complicatedly redefine the “alternative” music genre. It wasn’t unheard of for an independent rock band to make the jump to the majors—Hüsker Dü signed with Warner Bros. before Nirvana’s first show—but it was a turning point in alternative music when Geffen Records subsidiary DGC won over Nirvana, a group ready for major label muscle .

The band broadened its scope from the guttural thud of debut Bleach (1989) as it tightened its ranks, now down to a trio. In spring of 1990, Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and Bleach basher Chad Channing demoed new material for producer Butch Vig at Smart Studios in Wisconsin. The songs were as dirty as the band members themselves, who had just arrived from Seattle. Vig didn’t hesitate to bring the shine later heard in his own band, Garbage, although Cobain’s wild ideas meant more than a few attempts at mixing. “Turn all the treble off; I want it to sound like Black Sabbath,” he said during an early session included in this year’s massive reissue.

The demos showed promise, but the group’s chemistry still lacked a certain punch. Barely a year before Nevermind‘s release, 21-year-old hardcore kid Dave Grohl was recruited after Channing’s drumming style overstayed its welcome. As a drummer, Grohl was noticeably different. Minutes into his audition, he put an end to the band’s Spinal Tap-esque rotation of able (but indistinguishable) drummers. Nirvana’s drum tracks now had functionality and personality, which the band took on the road before wrapping up recording in Los Angeles in May 1991.

Nevermind‘s opening call to arms—the loudest shrug ever recorded—was, at least musically, inspired by two bands. Pixies mastered a loud-quiet-loud dynamic so well that all subsequent rock songs with a lonely bass during the verse should be enough to buy Kim Deal another 10 sweaters. Just as he name-dropped The Vaselines, Cobain’s admission of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as a Pixies rip-off garnered that group a slew of new fans.

The first band was from Boston; the second was named after it. Cobain nabbed the terse riffing from “More Than a Feeling.” Punk was born out of a need to destroy a monster: the bloated, proggy, noodle-rock of the mid-1970s. This album gets credit for doing the same with prissy hair metal, but Cobain wasn’t afraid to spike the music with Jurassic rock references and not care whether people thought he was serious. A Boomer-beloved refrain from The Youngbloods also announces “Territorial Pissings,” and the blistering punk hurricane that follows echoes the disconnect between older Baby Boomers and their Generation X offspring.

Regardless of whether those nods to fuck-yeah Camaro rock were earnest, Nirvana’s sense of humor was evident down to the track sequencing. “One more special message to go/And then I’m done, and I can go home,” Kurt sighed on the penultimate song “On a Plain.”

His voice—what Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore called “a punk hybrid of [John] Lennon and [Motorhead frontman] Lemmy”—was a versatile beast. It was key to expressing Nirvana’s musical range by carrying with it the cracks in his nuanced speaking voice (dig the way he sings the word “soaked” in “Come As You Are”). He’ll wax lethargic in the deadpan verses of “Lithium,” adopt a hushed croon for “Something in the Way,” or emulate a fantastic tantrum, as on the wrecked finale of “Territorial Pissings.”

Cobain stepped out vocally, but he didn’t keep his pop instincts guarded, either. Bleach threw two immediately accessible songs in among a wave of cold sludge: Cobain’s Meet the Beatles espresso shot “About a Girl” and the obscure cover “Love Buzz.” Cobain said his ideal for Nirvana was a “Gang of Four-meets-Scratch Acid” hybrid of twisted pop and abrasive punk. The group’s debut eschewed hooks because he thought Sub-Pop Records only wanted scuzz, but someone who loved the Melvins and called R.E.M. “saints” couldn’t stay confined. Songs such as “Lounge Act” nail this vision, and if Nevermind isn’t the best Nirvana album, it’s certainly the closest the band came to perfecting that mix.

Thanks to Vig’s balanced sensibilities, Nevermind hits hard but stays slick. Because of today’s digital compression, older songs can sound feeble by comparison. Not these; the guitars remain uncompromisingly loud. On “Breed,” Cobain’s vocals are just low enough in the mix to give the song a sense of hunger, and the relentlessly frayed noise of “Territorial Pissings” remains as brutal a listen as “Something in the Way”‘s quiet panic.

Whether intentional or interpreted, Nirvana albums have a predominant color that aligns with their sonic theme. Bleach is the black stuff a roadie coughs up after the show. In Utero is unsettling and visceral, all stomach acid and hot blood. The calm in Nevermind‘s artwork showed Nirvana at its most accessible, swimming in Vig’s pure-blue production. The sudden fame thrust upon the band would ultimately drown Cobain, and the lyrics in those immortal singles sound eerily prescient.

How discomforting is it that all of Nevermind‘s four singles mention either a gun or killing? It’s one thing to hear “Come As You Are” sung exclusively to you on CD or iPod, but hearing Cobain insist, “No, I don’t have a gun,” over the airwaves to millions, one can almost feel the world shift uncomfortably in their car seats today as an unwilling spokesman broadcasts from the grave. As long as “alternative rock” exists as a radio format, the haunting will continue.

But Nevermind is more about finding life than ending it.

“Breed” has a chest-thumping chorus and an example of the little flaws that make this album even better (“We can plant a house/We can build a tree,” should continue to nag future generations of creative youth obsessed with the English language). Compared with the dudes who churned out Bleach, this Nirvana is a completely different band. Nevermind is the sound of a narrator gaining confidence and acceptance, feeling hideous while venturing to local shows at bowling alleys. It’s about discovering a community of friends you didn’t know existed, and didn’t know if you’d ever be able to live without (“Our little group has always been”).

Nirvana was a community unto itself, despite the elevated status of Cobain as songwriter and savior. While those are Cobain’s words in every song, the music on Nevermind is credited to Nirvana. Although Grohl politely stashed his own songs, he made up for it with the hurling drum rolls on “Stay Away” and “Territorial Pissings” that feel like heartbeats out of control. Two decades later, the most curious part of the equation is Novoselic. Because of the dearth of his post-Nirvana output and the twin shadows of Cobain and Grohl, Novoselic is often an overlooked contributor. But the bassist credited as “Chris” in the liner notes deserves recognition for his restraint and willingness to play the most workmanlike part of any rock band.

“Kurt wrote amazing songs and Krist wrote super hooky basslines,” Vig said. “The basslines are really melodic, and the hook under the song was actually in the bass.” Novoselic didn’t come from the frustrated-lead-guitarist school of bassists (a la Paul McCartney and Yes’ Chris Squire); instead, he held down the refrain’s melody while Grohl added lean flare and Cobain let loose.

The hits come toward the beginning, so those hearing Nevermind for the first time—front-to-back, as nature intended—will have to sit tight for new discoveries.

It’s worth it. The album’s best melodies haven’t been overplayed. “Drain You” is probably the most sick, romantic song two outcasts can share. The four-chord lilt in “On a Plain” is jarring in its simplicity and in its power, ending with those familiar oooh-hoooh vocals Grohl would later make his calling card. And a stripped-down presentation lets the album’s creepiest moments (“Polly,” “Something in the Way”) stand out against the wet chrome production on songs such as “In Bloom.”

Those two songs hint at where the band would go (the David Bowie and Meat Puppets covers on MTV Unplugged In New York) and could have continued (Cobain described his ideal for a fourth Nirvana album as “ethereal”). “Polly” could have been a lot creepier, but the stark feel of the released version—the 1990 demo with overdubs—does enough to get under the skin.

The band wanted to do the same with its artwork. DGC balked when the chosen photograph of swimming infant Spencer Elden came with visible baby wang, but Cobain wouldn’t give. An equal-opportunity album, the back cover features medical pictures of diseased vaginas, which can go unnoticed among the innocuous monkey next to the track list (you’re welcome). That decade was all about highlighting the mundane along with the disgusting–consider Dinosaur Jr.’s decidedly unglamorous album covers, or how the opinion leaders were gangly cartoon freaks named Beavis and Butthead.

That backward “Teen Spirit” got tacked onto a burned copy of the CD as a personal “hidden track,” but certain copies of Nevermind are out there with their own monstrosity encore called “Endless Nameless.” It’s a decent piece of noise but not much more, so its status as an afterthought shows consistency; the songs without a strong hook were relegated to Nevermind’s b-sides.

Everything would get co-opted sooner or later. Grohl noticed people showing up to Nirvana’s shows who “used to kick my fucking ass for listening to this music.” And people hate on Nevermind for giving way to post-grunge butt rock, but that’s kind of like hating Iggy Pop because of Jet.

It’s painfully ironic, because Cobain’s musical taste was so fervently anti-corporate. Each band he mentioned in an interview offered a window into his whole belief system, where the K Records shield might as well have been a donkey or an elephant. With Vig’s studio sheen, Cobain snuck his party sympathizers in through the back door of America’s radio stations to become the other kind of Top 40.

Just as I mistakenly Iron Butterfly’d their biggest single, turning the mainstream inside-out wasn’t Nirvana’s intention. But with the band’s apathy-chic appearance and proud embrace of the ugly, Nevermind inspired countless pop musicians to come as they were. How’s that for backward?

Nirvana – Nevermind Tracklist:

  1. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
  2. “In Bloom”
  3. “Come As You Are”
  4. “Breed”
  5. “Lithium”
  6. “Polly”
  7. “Territorial Pissings”
  8. “Drain You”
  9. “Lounge Act”
  10. “Stay Away”
  11. “On A Plain”
  12. “Something in the Way”