As a Friend: Nirvana's Nevermind at 20

Nirvana's Nevermind turns 20.
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Nirvana - NevermindNirvana’s Nevermind turns 20 this week. The record, the band’s second, was released on September 24, 1991.

In January of 1992, Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson out of the top spot on the Billboard charts. That wasn’t supposed to happen. This was grunge rock, whatever the hell that was, and Nirvana was at the forefront of something counter-cultural, something rare, something that didn’t belong to those conventional motherfuckers.

Nirvana started to plan what would become Nevermind in the spring of 1990. It was to be their second release for Sub Pop and the tentative title was Sheep. Butch Vig, a producer the band admired because of his work with Wisconsin’s Killdozer, was brought in to work on the record. The path to Nevermind was far from a smooth one, though.

After a series of incidents and changes, including a label shift to Geffen, Nirvana pulled back together to try to record with Vig. They were reportedly anxious about their first major label release, however, and kept on pushing back the recording dates. Eventually the band got their act together and got the music down, but Kurt Cobain had to put in extra time on lyrics and vocals. He would sometimes finish his lyrics just moments before recording them.

What we have with Nevermind is something extraordinary, to say the least. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a major hit and the album basically sold itself right out of the box. Geffen didn’t have to do much to promote it.

Perhaps no other album in history sounded off about insignificance in such a colossal way. Cobain’s lyrics exemplified the disenchantment and rejection of a generation more than any video game or film or special effect could ever hope for, calling upon the immoral menaces of the dark to make their way to the flannelled surface. He scowled, yelled, mumbled, and sang stunningly as he brought the message of oblivion, of futility and ennui, to light.

At the same time, Nevermind carries with it a pop sensibility. The songs are good fucking songs, built with a construct that buried the shitty 80s and all the businesslike lunacy under a mountain of combat boots and facial hair. But they’re simple songs, misleadingly so, and they’re played with uncomplicated glee and energy.

There was also the matter of love and respect found within the hollows of Nevermind. Cobain’s inimitable love and respect for women emphatically makes its presence felt in tracks like “Polly” and “Breed.” On the latter, Cobain pleads “I don’t mean to stare, we don’t have to breed.”

So where are we with Nevermind at 20? I’m not sure it would matter to Nirvana, to be honest. The climate for dispiritedness and eye-rolling is perhaps riper than ever, with economic inequality raging on and music still cranking out masses of suck. The corporate engines still roll. Women are still abused and people still stick to bullshit, like shopping as a hobby.

Maybe the rise of the Internet would have weighed on someone like Cobain and on the creation of something like Nevermind, but maybe it wouldn’t have. Would Kurt have had a Twitter account? A Facebook page? An iPad?

Nevermind called us to “Come doused in mud, soaked in bleach.” It had us arrive at a moment as we were, warts and all, and it acknowledged us no matter how stupid or contagious we could be. So maybe the point isn’t where Nevermind is at after 20 years or what Cobain would be up to had he lived. No, maybe the point is the same as it is with all great works of art: where we are after 20 years and where Nevermind finds us “with the lights out.”