Sound — 9
Normally I like to start at the beginning of a artist's career with the first album, but when it comes to this Aberdeen born, Seattle associated, legend of epic proportions, I just see no point. I'd rather review and get the mainstream points out of the way first...
But let's just assume you DON'T know who Nirvana are...
To put it short, Nirvana are a punk influenced, pop infused, gritty sounding rock band that went under the banners of "Alternative" and "Grunge" in the late 1980's and early 1990's. They formed in Aberdeen Washington in 1985 with Kurt Cobain's school pal Krist Novoselic and went through half a Spinal Tap of drummers before landing on Chad Channing - whom was later replaced - right before this album I might ad - by East Coast Washington DC based, hard hitting till it kills ya' drummer for the band Scream - David Grohl, to replace Chad for creative differences and a stronger energy.
Now, let's look at where we are now and whose here to Entertain us...
Kurt Cobain - Kurt Cobain is the songwriter, ONLY guitarist (at this point), and lead singer of the band of course. He's also the cult of personality that has followed this band well past his untimely passing. To assess Kurt is incredibly difficult because he has no one singular path of influences or strain of stories to follow. He was basically a pop writer, with a punk rock ethos, a preference for surf-guitars with skinny necks, and a new-wave-ish quirkiness in a minor enough degree people could not detect it because the hooks masks it over where it seems not quirky, but a part of a fine tuned, well oiled ball of emotion destroying everything in sight.
One thing I must note about Kurt singing wise is his consistency - Kurt Cobain was a VERY consistent singer when it came to dynamics and versatility, even listening to the old demos the dynamics range from practically whispering into the mic in a nasally small voice, to shrieking to a point of killing whatever input device was in front of his face. Sure, sometimes it took someone like Butch Vig to bring it out in him (ie. "That's what The Beatles would have done"), but the consistency up to his untimely end was proof Kurt had some mad skills in the vocal department, but it was his own thing, and he kept it going.
Sound and instrument wise for this record, Kurt found favor in Fender guitars on the previous tour - namely Japanese Stratocasters (presumably the 62' Reissues or so I've read) with Gotoh Tuners and various humbuckers at the bridge (usually Seymour Duncan Hot Rails or J.B. pickups). He also picked up a 1969 Fender Competition Mustang and a 1965 Fender Jaguar presumably owned by Session Musician Martin Jenner (whom played with Cliff Richard in the early 80's on supposedly that same guitar with it's original neck on it), the latter of which would become a symbol of this album era's guitar sound as he used it to support the tour the most.
Kurt used a brand new rig utilizing his pedals (a DS-1, a EHX Small Clone, and an EchoFlanger was at one point said to be present (which is a rebadged version of a EHX PolyChorus). While most of the time Kurt used what became his touring rig - a pair of Mesa Boogie preamps run into various power amps (I think Carvers at this point, they changed over the course of the tour because Kurt blew them up a lot), and then output to some un-marked Marshall cabinets, Kurt does do some different stuff on this record including a 12-string Stella with five nylon strings and duct-taped on tuners, and plugs right into the board with the DS1 and Small Clone for "Territorial Pissings".
Krist Novoselic - The underrated bassist best known for being "that super tall dude who says all the funny stuff (but is actually a budding political figure too)". Krist at this point was using Gibson Ripper, Gibson RD, and some Ibanez Eagle basses on this record. Krist does not sing. Why I say he's underrated is because, much like any true professional, Krist makes it look and sound easy while all the while there is a LOT more going on with his bass playing thatn one might realize. From the inverted downward flow on Lithium (in contrast to Kurt's ascending chord progression), to the deliberately bendy and sloppy feel he puts on the verses of Smells Like Teen Spirit that gives it that haunting and slightly unstable vibe, or the hidden gem "Endless Nameless" with fuzzed out insanity stopping at one point on what sounds like a Super Mario Bros. 3 hammer brothers level somewhere toward the end (really showcasing Krist's sense of humor, intentional or not). Krist was another irreplaceable piece that made Nirvana what it was.
Chad Channing - Chad appears on one track on this album, and it's pretty minimal, it's the acoustic song "Polly". So all we hear out of him is some fills and textural parts, but what he does contributes much to the song so let's give him credit here on his last work with the band.
David Grohl - David sings backup vocals, and plays drums. All the high harmonies you hear on songs like "In Bloom" or "Come As You Are" are Grohl, though he takes some lower and some layered parts on other songs such as "On a Plain" or "Drain You". As a drummer, Dave's intent from the start was to bash the shit out of everything with brute force for that "whoah, holy f***" factor, and do it precicely and on time, which is a big reason Nirvana hired him in - he had the raw power, tightness, and aggression to drive the band forward, and David did - right up to the very sad end.
Now, let's talk about the sound, this was a BIG part of why Nevermind was their most successful album - because it was produced, polished, and palatable enough for your average wimpy mainstreamer to listen to and feel like they have some edge, some strength, some "punk" in their system, but was avant-garde and different enough to give someone who looks beyond the mainstream a reason to like it for it's core individuality found within the songs and the sonic atmosphere.
Nevermind has an interesting atmosphere that mixes late 80's production values with early 90's underground rock culture organic-ness and influence, creating this almost, ironic, or bizarrely mixed experience that is uniquely Nirvana's yet has enough "smoothing out" to lure in new people. You have this sort of blue, watery, overtone over the whole record that gives it consistency, yet each song is different, independent, and offers another atmosphere.
The sound quality overall pretty much screams 1988-1993 era recording though, with the heavy compression, overdubs, seemingly-eternal chorusy shimmer over the top of everything, there's no mistaking this album is from 1991 - it's one of those cases where the production is outshined by the material produced in such a style.
Overall, I give it a nine, once you detach yourself from any of the Nirvana lore, myth, and legend, you come to realize this album DOES sound like it was made in 1991. What makes it timeless is Kurt Cobain and the rest of the band's contributions sonically, and how they work, play, clash, and mingle with each other. It can sound dated, but it's all about how you move your mind on whether it does nor not.
Lyrics — 9
Kurt Cobain was not one of those simplistic singers whose there to convey some big message through his lyrics ala. Bono, nor is he there to do "Sky is Blue, I Love You" things ala Mike Reno of Loverboy. Kurt is just there to create a feel - convey a message more through how the words SOUND than what they actually mean. A lot of his lyrics are collections of random poetry he wrote - put together to music, and all of them could have been sourced from different subjective word meanderings - but lazy last minute approach or not - Kurt seems to have had enough of a grip on his art to put them together in a way that they have meaning, making him not lazy nor last minute, but just that he mastered his craft of his own style, and that's not easy to do in short order like he supposedly did it.
Because of this "how they sound is more important than what they are approach" the lyrics fit the music like a hand in a perfectly sized glove. The words and music fit together in a way that conveys the message, and is that not what being a songwriter is all about. Put that together with some peak moments where things really make sense on the surface AND fit in such a way such as "Polly" or "Something in the Way" and that helps someone new to a higher level of music appreciation have some hooks to latch onto.
Now for the track play-by-play... yep, including that "hidden gem"...
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" - Enough has been said about this catchy, syncopated, romping, yet melodic hit single. It really does reflect teen spirit like my rusty, musty, 6th grade P.E. locker room full of cutthroat youth hell bent on beating your ass in if you don't fit in with "their little group". So much meaning could be pulled from it. And the guitar solo on Teen Spirit is one of the best ones from both a technical, artistic, and meaningful standpoint. Something I think people should consider when they start bashing Kurt's guitar skills - he may not be Steve Vai, but his sentiment coming through more than makes up for it - which is the whole point to playing guitar.
"In Bloom" - In Bloom is a great example of what I mean by Nirvana's "New Wave" wacky angular influence, the jarring mix of the sing along chorus against verses where Kurt just drags around down low being followed by a blabbery chorused guitar for the last two bars really has me seeing what Kurt meant by Nirvana being a "New Wave" band. Add that on with a song seemingly about the people Kurt wrote about in the Incesticide liner notes and you can really find the humor in this track, it's like splattering the sexists, racists, and homophobes with rotten tomatoes when they came to listen to you, a sentiment that gets extra points in my book both for funny mental imagery and a good soundtrack to go with it.
"Come as You Are" - Another one that really does not need an essay. This now tagline for Kurt's hometown of Aberdeen WA, is really dark and anthemic as a heavily chorused Fender Mustang in out-of-phase mode ticks off the sides of a sonic swimming pool. Another overplayed masterpiece. The meaning to me was what we are vs. what society expects us to be - sort of like the character singing is like that mainstream sister thinking the subject is not as edgy and therefore should not be that way (i.e., "As I WANT you to be") vs. the fact the edginess or anger or other dark emotion deep down is the truth, but of course, one has to hide it to remain functional in society.
"Breed" - Alright, now to an underrated one. Breed is a frenetic flat out scream-fest - it's closest mate could have been The B-52's "Song for a Future Generation" made more brash, angry, and bold. Except instead of mockingly "Let's Meet and Have A Baby Now" the sentiment is a bit more - uh - blatant. It just bumps right in after Come As You Are and kicks your face in before...
"Lithium" - Lithium starts off dark and low, a lot like "Come as You Are," but dry, while Kurt sings of being happy about all these negative and weird stuff going on - apparently the "High" of being bipolar - only to be contrasted by the lows when he's screaming he's not gonna crack something sixteen bars later. This is one of the more raw and growlier tracks that kind of forbears the sound we'd hear on "In Utero" years later.
"Polly" - When I first heard this album, I was 10 and obsessed with The Secret of Monkey Island, but Polly was NOT a parrot and this is not about making water crackers with a still and a cocktail glass on Dinky Island! No, this very serious song is about a girl who was kidnapped, raped, and got away from her attacker by building a level of trust and escaping. Surprisingly, the sort of "stuck on an island with an unstable acoustic" really fits the dark, abandoned, haunted-yet-in-the-moment feel of the song - sort of like being tied up against your will to a powder keg while some jackass named "Friend" is being no "Friend" to speak of, is trying to torture you with a blowtorch.
"Territorrial Pissings" - Krist makes his shaky vocal debut here by caterwalling out the lyrics to the chorus of "Get Together" by the Youngbloods before Kurt's nightmare Jaguar of doom starts terrorizing and molesting the Neve console via a Direct-Input DS-1. I'm not even sure what he's talking about here, sounds to be a bit about religion, but I'll say this, covering this song is great musical scream therapy! It does cover some themes of Feminism (Once I meta Wise Man, if so he's a Woman), Racism (When I was an Alien, Cultures Werent Opinions), and truth in Paranoia (Just because you're paranoid, don't mean they're not after you) - which fits the urgent, screaming by punky soundtrack.
"Drain You" - Seems to be about relationships where one is dependent on the other and the other is very independent. It's overlaid by a very angular, new-wave-ish, syncopated riffing that fits with the subject material, sort of like if Loverboy grew a Shakespeare or two in their lyric department and Reno was less Machismo and more truth oriented, or an early 80's late night T&A teen sex comedy had the glossy 1980's filters removed and showed what was REALLY going on. It includes an eerie breakdown section that sounds like a few moments of contemplation in the boiler room after barfing up the yellow water from the water fountain - complete with rubber duckie!
"Lounge Act" - one of the few tracks on this album I don't care much for. Seems to deal with security issues and being smothered by a lover. This is one of the tracks where Krist's bass work shines, really brightly, especially on the intro.
"Stay Away" - And then we go from an ever escalating bit about security and being smothered by it to a self explanatory tune that just kicks butt from that freaked out intro of bass, snare fill, and random-esque guitar robblry (is that even a word!?!? I've got to make up a whole new vocabulary for Kurt's guitar work)... it escalates right up to the end where "this whole plane is going down (ironically, right before On a Plain I might add!)" complete with what sounds like the only time Kurt ever used a whammy bar in his life (and to great effect though it could have just been the Low E tuner key).
"On a Plain" - On A Plain leads us in with some kind of wacky 1950's esque kissy noisemaking thing, only to then kick off with a punch in the face of drop-D goodness. The song is entirely a mix of outtakes from Cobain's poetry that means everything and nothing all at once, all the while getting serenaded by some of the best vocal-work on the album, and a heavily chorused, Drop-D tuned Fender Jaguar spitting out SUS2 and ADD9 chords with repentant smoothness.
"Something in the Way" - The legendary non-hit most people say was about Kurt living underneath a bridge in Aberdeen and living off of grass and fish. Weather that's just a myth and legend or a true story - well, Kurt took that to his grave with him but left us with this dark, moody, masterpiece of a closer to the album complete with viola backing tracks and some GREAT harmonizning in the vocal department. The lyrics are very basic for a Cobain song, but effective, proving even the most cryptic songwriters don't need to be cryptic all the time to be good. But the end... well, if you have a tape or MP3 files as the mainstream saw it... but...
...ever gone to sleep with your headphones on listening to this on a certain run of CD? Let's just say Black Sabbath on 78 speed won't have you seeing god, but this just might have you seeing monsters at 2 a.m.!
On some runs of the CD release of Nevermind, 13 minutes and 52 seconds in (maybe 59, my brain is mite rusty and it's been awhile since I took that song off my Nevermind CD I've had since 95'), you will be accosted by what sounds like the musical equivalent of Dennis Weaver's Dodge Aspen at the end of the Speilberg movie Duel before it plummets off the cliff with the semi truck shoving it - a guitar riff that sounds like broken metal structure bending and trying to whir to life, firey distortion, a distorted bass guitar almost alien in sound, and thunderous drumming - to be met with possibly the weirdest warbly chorused verses... it's like a cross between Legion of Rock Stars and if one made a Game Genie cheat device for your CD player! Like if Nevermind was a album of samples, this played every sample, all 1001 of them, and played them at the wrong speed, wrong pitch, and backwards at the same time in random combinations... well, sort of...
Endless Nameless is a hard track to make something of. But it's how Nirvana ended their live shows with a wanton scene of destruction with amongst the casualties being Kurt Cobain's black Tune-O-Matic equipped Stratocaster in this case. A noise jam for people like me to enjoy. So I love it. A mish mash of rage (from a Lithium session gone wrong I might add), comedy (go listen to Krist near the end going all "Super Hammer Bros" before doing some weird scratchy alien voice thing with his bass), and just giving it all they have before disbanding for the night to recoup before hitting the studio again the next day.
And what can I say about singer skills again, Kurt runs the full gamut from a mere whisper on Something in the Way, to a good solid middle-ground on Lithium, to flat out blowing his voice out at the end of at least half the album's songs. If Dave (Grohl) is right and he's boiling nails in there - they must be the same ones John Henry nailed down railroad trestles with because he get's pretty far before his voice gives out.
Overall Impression — 9
It would seem almost downright blasphemous to compare Nevermind to other albums because at this point, while all the cliche late 80's studio trappings are there (glossy production, overdubs, many tracks worth of additions, even a secret track on Smells Like Teen Spirit that aids the feel more than most of us guitarists would ever recognize), the rawness still bites sterility's ass and gets the point home Nirvana style regardless of how produced or "slick" it sounds. This really drives the point home of how strong Nirvana's sonic personality was and still is after all these ages.
Impressive tracks, once you cast aside the success and overplayed nature of a good half of the album, all of them stand out in their own unique way. This is one of a handful of albums I own where I never have to hit the skip button and can enjoy it all the way through, even with a 13.52 minutes of silence between "Way" and "Endless." It's this being shared as a generally universal opinion on this record by fans and passing listeners into the genre alike that gives it it's strength, longevitiy, and contributes to it's legendary status (like it really needs more).
I've always loved this album and when I was 12 and started playing guitar, this is what I wanted to initially sound like the most. I found that "Nevermind" really shaped who I was as a guitarist from the get go and the ghosts of Nirvana that I have adopted and made my own have forever become a part of my playing style as a guitarist ever since. One of the greatest points about this album, or pretty much any of Nirvana's output - is for a beginning guitar player, it is a ROCK SOLID chassis to build your playing style off of because the point to playing it is not technicality or precision - it's emotion, heart, and conveying the sentiment, which is something I feel more guitarists need to focus on these days with all the YouTube Alchemy and Scientific over-study of theory, scales, and whatnot to really wow and audience. They did not come to hear you recite scales - they came to hear you and the rest of the band play with your fucking heart! And that's what Nirvana did, and it's easier said than done.
What do I hate about it though, that it's become so maligned because of how much Kurt hated the production. I like the production because it offers sort of a sugar-coated capsule to introduce people to a world of music that sits in a different place than the mainstream, sort of like the training wheels of non-mainstream music beneath the surface. Some people just don't have the constitution to go listen to GG Allin right away, you have to sway them there through some Pixies and Raincoats first - and "Nevermind" is a good gateway.
As for lost or stolen - I've had a copy of "Nevermind" in tape format, and I've owned my copy of the CD since the 1990's (which gets a run through the skip-doctor every so often because I've played it so much it's got rings like a tree where my Discman scratched it up while walking all over town in my late teens/early 20's before MP3 players were a thing). I've been wanting to try on the deluxe edition for a time, but I still like the original copy with Endless, weather It's me wanting to get pumped up while I walk around town checking out obscure guitars and buying records - or I want a retro-'90s weekend of playing "Wolfenstein 3D" on my 486 blasting robo-nazis away to the tune of "Stay Away" - this is one of those albums that forever endures in my record collection. I give it a 10, though I wish a 9.5 was it, because it's a masterpiece, like it or not, and it does hold up even with some minor flaws that are almost hardly worth mentioning.