Classic Rock Review: ‘Nevermind’


Review by Lilen Pautasso, as featured on New York webzine

It’s not very often that a style of music can completely change the music environment, but when an artist can create a style that is a bit unusual and completely captivating they are subsequently given quite a legendary status. This is certainly the case for the three young anti-mainstream kids that rocked the music scene of the 90’s. In an era of MTV, indulgent glam rock and bubble-gum boy bands, Seattle trio Nirvana reignited the grittiness of rock and roll that had almost been superseded by repetitious ballad-driven pop.

The Nirvana story began when self-taught guitarist Kurt Cobain together with bassist Krist Novoselic and a handful of drummers, produced a nomadic style of punk music that made some waves in the underground, but flew under the mainstream radar. It was not until September 24, 1991 that the band released their multi-platinum album Nevermind, simultaneously changing the music scene, their fans and the band forever.

Nirvana began their career with no illusions about their chances for mass success. After welcoming drummer Dave Grohl to the band, Nirvana took on a more pop-rock oriented style as identified in songs such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come as You Are.” It was the insurmountable success and familiarity of these songs that transformed the band from unknown underground rockers to the alternative punk icons of the 90’s. But while their highest selling album Nevermind was an almost overnight success (thanks to their signing with a major label and glossy CD cover), critics accused the band of lacking musical integrity and skill, labelling their music “homogenous” and “grossly watered down.” However, despite the criticism the album was bound to receive, it is difficult to escape the alluring nature of the albums most unique and oddly composed tracks, such as the chaotic “Territorial Pissings”, melancholic “Something in the Way” and flaccid “Polly.” Even “On a Plain” begins with the sound of someone making armpit fart noises. This quirky and idiosyncratic nature of the album is infectious and humorous at the same time which makes the album difficult not to enjoy.


The beauty in music is that quality often manifests itself in simple musical compositions. It is the “catchy” tune or indelible riff that can leave the longest impression. Kurt Cobain’s whaling screams, the distorted riffs, infectious bass lines and fast-paced rhythm are scattered across almost every song on Nevermind. In this instance, Nirvana succeeded in capturing the essence of simple, addictive rock and roll that has regularly been the catalyst for successful bands such as The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath and The Ramones. Of course, when talking about catchy, infectious and simplistic, the song that best fits the description has to be “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” From the opening stuttering chord progression to the thundering intrusion of the drums, the song built on feelings of angst and rebellion – a lingering after-effect of the punk invasion. While the song is based on a rather uninteresting tale of a girl who wore a spray-on deodorant of the same name, Kurt’s screaming combined with his melancholy, almost lazy style of singing is oddly gripping. Lyrically, the song is a jumble of unusual themes – “a milato, an albino, a mosquito, my libido” – but it is an organized chaos that makes interpretation much more fun. Lucky for Nirvana, the album’s most addictive track also happened to be Track 1, no doubt having an impact on the success of the album, particularly in an era of cassettes and CDs.

And while the music is the most significant aspect of the album, there is no escaping the historic and controversial album cover. As one of the most replicated images in history, perhaps most famously mimicked by The Simpsons, the image portrays a baby boy swimming underwater, presumably chasing after the dollar bill on a fish-hook in front of him. The image alludes to connotations of one’s constant pursuit of wealth – a desire instilled at a very young age. While the image was just a simple idea taken to Geffen Records by Cobain and Grohl after watching a documentary on water births, it is the powerful imagery that left a long-lasting impression on audiences. The odd choice of album cover combined with a style of rock music that was both raw and edgy allowed Nirvana to bring their underground, alternative rock to a large mainstream audience and, at the same time, garner a level of admiration and respect from music lovers and critics alike.

Next Steps

Despite low commercial expectations by the band and its record label, Nevermind became a surprise success in late 1991, largely due to the popularity of its first single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” By January 1992, it had replaced Michael Jackson’s album Dangerous at number one on the Billboard charts. The album also produced three other successful singles: “Come as You Are,” “Lithium,” and “In Bloom.” The Recording Industry Association of America has certified the album Diamond (over 10 million copies shipped), and the album has sold over 30 million copies worldwide. Nirvana would release one more album, In Utero (1993), before the tragic suicide of Kurt Cobain. On Friday, April 08, 1994,  the music world lost a legendary figure, yet part of his legacy will forever remain due to this brilliant album.


(c) Lilen Pautasso 2013



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