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22 September 2021updated 24 Sep 2021 11:17am

How Nirvana’s Nevermind spoke to an alienated generation

On the band’s defining second album, Kurt Cobain found a golden ratio between melody and noise.

By Tom Gatti

In 1990, Kurt Cobain was working on songs for Nirvana’s second album, “Sheep”. Their debut, Bleach, had been well received on its release the year before, but their indie label Sub Pop was broke, as was the band. The 22-year-old Cobain, who was living with his girlfriend Tracy Marander in Olympia, Washington, sketched in his journal a money-making scheme for him and Nirvana’s bassist Krist Novoselic: a flyer for “Pine Tree Janitorial Service”. Alongside it he scribbled promotional material for the album: “NIRVANA. Flowers. Perfume. Candy. Puppies. Love. Generational Solidarity. And Killing Your Parents. SHEEP.” The band were, his pun-filled ad read,  “No 1 on billbored top 100 for 36 consecutive weaks…  2 times on the cover of Bowling Stoned, Hailed as the most original thought provoking and important band of our decade by Thyme & Newsweak”.

The title did not stick – “Sheep” became Nevermind – but Cobain’s predictions were not far off. The album was released on 24 September 1991, with a wryly anti-capitalist cover – an underwater shot of a naked baby reaching for a dollar bill on a hook – and little marketing or airplay (“I can’t understand what the guy is saying,” radio programmers initially complained). But the LP and its lead single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” quickly exceeded the expectations of Geffen, the major label Nirvana had recently signed to, and in January 1992, the album reached number one on the Billboard chart, supplanting Michael Jackson’s Dangerous. Nirvana got the Rolling Stone cover and the acclaim. Cobain got much more. The press dubbed him the “spokesman of a generation”, a position he never wanted but continued to occupy long after his suicide two years later.

Nevermind’s success was partly due to its sound. Nirvana had recently recruited Dave Grohl, a thunder god of a drummer, and the producer Butch Vig captured the intensity of the three-piece playing at full tilt. The raw, lo-fi ethic of Bleach was ditched, and vocals and guitars were double-tracked to create sonic space and impact. Andy Wallace, who had worked with Madonna and Slayer, was brought in to make the recording “sound as big and powerful as possible”, even on a tinny radio. This approach augmented the quiet verse/loud chorus structure Cobain had absorbed from the Pixies: nowhere was it more evident than in the pummelling opening bars of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

[See also: Jarvis Cocker interview: At the end of 1996, I had “a nervous breakdown”]

On Nevermind, Cobain found a golden ratio between melody and noise. His vocal lines have an infectious quality thrillingly at odds with the hoarse delivery and hard guitars. The opening lines of “Lithium” – “I’m so happy ‘cause today I found my friends/They’re in my head” – or the rhymes of “Polly” – “Promise you/Have been true” – are delivered with a childlike simplicity that belies their dark subject matter. The listener – like the man from “In Bloom”, who “likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along, and he likes to shoot his gun” – is helpless to resist the grip of a great pop record. 

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The radio programmer was right: it is often hard to decipher Cobain’s meaning. However random they seem, though – and they were often hastily assembled from his notebooks before recording – there is a forceful coherence to Cobain’s lyrics, which circle around his profound feelings of alienation and what he once described as the “death void”. The record’s twin preoccupations – babies and birth; guns and death – painfully foreshadow his own fate (Cobain’s daughter was born in 1992; he killed himself in 1994 with a shotgun bought by Dylan Carlson, the friend who is thought to have inspired “In Bloom”). But they also tap into something elemental: the idea that, as Samuel Beckett wrote, we “give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more”.

As Cobain’s biographer Charles Cross notes, his great-uncle had killed himself when Kurt was around 12. Two years later, he and two friends found the dead body of a local boy who had hanged himself outside an elementary school. Over the next ten years he returned, in his journals and drawings (Cobain was an accomplished artist) to the theme of suicide.

[See also: “It’s unmanageable”: How the vinyl industry reached breaking point]

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Not all of the teenagers electrified by Nevermind shared Cobain’s obsession with mortality. But his authenticity was unmistakeable. Like Holden Caulfield, he detested the “phoney”. And, though his fake ad was satirical, he did seek a sense of “generational solidarity”. He played, he said, not for a group or scene but “kids in general… we have the same problems and we all basically have the same thoughts”. Similar to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”, Nevermind was an intoxicating countercultural outburst from and for the youth.

In the lead-up to its 30th anniversary, the album has had a strange double coda. In April 2020, the megastar American rapper Post Malone played a blistering live-streamed lockdown set of Nirvana songs: it raised nearly $3m for Covid relief and confirmed the band’s hold over the next generation. And then in August this year the man pictured on Nevermind’s cover announced that he is suing the band for child sexual exploitation; a sad, ironic echo of that desirable, dangling dollar bill.

By showing executives that alternative rock could make millions, Nevermind transformed the music industry. By showing a generation that a “pretty song” could also be a howl of despair, it has shaped the tastes and convictions of young people ever since.

This article appears in the 22 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Great Power Play