Review Summary: An uneven compilation made better by its occasional revealing of Nevermind's hidden genius.Come As You Are
, the 20th anniversary tribute to Nevermind
, has given me a lot to think about.
First, it's made me revisit the original album. Now, I don't like Nirvana and I never did. While everyone else was watching them on MTV, I was listening to Christian music and attempting to reach another sort of nirvana. It puts me, I think, in a unique position when it comes to the band. I didn't listen to them until I started listening to a lot of other music as well, most of which I hadn't heard anything like before. Next to everything else, Nirvana were just another band. Not an integral part of my childhood, not something that shaped my music tastes. Just another band, and an incredibly unimpressive one at that. It's not that Kurt Cobain “couldn't sing,” it's not that the music isn't inventive enough. I wasn't into the way it sounded. Mostly I felt like it could have been a lot more than it was. Any chance for beauty was replaced – intentionally it seemed – by ugliness and abrasiveness. I suppose I simply missed the boat. Listening to it now, it sounds a little bit better, but not much.
However, I approached this tribute with some level of excitement. If Nevermind
should have been better, here were a number of bands who just might be able to make it so. And given that I have no emotional connection to the original album, nothing I heard would offend me. I wanted to hear them turn Nevermind
into something beautiful, something that didn't cave under the weight of its own “flawed perfection,” as so many seem to point to when talking about the album. But even so, along with the excitement, there were also the same misgivings that come with any cover album. I might have wanted to hear something wholly different from Nevermind
, but that wouldn't keep these bands from simply getting together in a studio and having a professionally recorded Nevermind
jam session similar to something they might do while screwing around at band practice.
What's interesting is the difference between how the bands more obviously influenced by Nirvana paid tribute and how the bands picked for the compilation because they saw Nirvana's Unplugged
session when they were little chose to pay tribute. Story Of The Year and Hawthorne Heights are the odd men out here, and their covers show about as much creativity as one could expect from two such bands. Placed one after the other, their covers are the nadir of the compilation, and given how early in the tracklist they appear, it's almost a deal-breaker. Both bands opted for direct translations of their songs, and they stand out as the problem with tribute albums in general. Playing a band's song note for note is not a tribute to that band's creativity, it is a tribute to the covering band's lack thereof. It is the reason I say that those bands were probably added because they “love Nirvana's music” and not because they were truly influenced or changed by it. “Lithium” is one of the better songs on Nevermind
, and Hawthorne Heights' cover is just what you'd expect: a good song covered by a terrible band and not worth even a cursory listen. “Breed” was at least a fitting song for Story Of The Year to cover, not just because it's one of the faster, more punk-influenced songs on the album but also because “Breed” and Story Of The Year both suck. The one good thing that can be said about Hawthorne Heights is that JT Woodruff at least brought his own horrible vocal style to the song instead of trying to recreate Cobain's inimitable wailing. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Dan Marsala, who guarantees that Story Of The Year's “Breed” will always be worse than the original because of his terrible screeching.
Surprisingly, the rest of the compilation fares much better. Maybe it's because the source material is so simple and open to creative interpretation (hell, people have been making it seem like so much more than it is for twenty years), but most of the bands truly shine. Civil Twilight turn “Come As You Are” into a gorgeous ballad, layered and full, that reaches heights the original never could. Will Dailey, who had perhaps the toughest assignment, changes “Territorial Pissings” from a truly terrible song to a reverb-soaked, piano-backed Americana highlight. Margot And The Nuclear So And So's, a band with plenty of Nirvana influences in their own music, add only a minimum of elements to “Something In The Way,” but it ends up sounding more tribal, the background ooh
-ing more ghostly and haunting. And I don't like Maps & Atlases at all, but their cover of “Drain You” is so energetic that I found myself bobbing my head in spite of myself. Surprisingly, Murder By Death's cover of “Lounge Act” is pretty disappointing. Their interpretation is more literal; it's slowed down and really does almost sound like lounge music. It's pleasant enough but it never really takes off. Finger Eleven's “Polly” is similar to Hawthorne Heights' and Story Of The Year's covers in that it's a direct interpretation, but it ends up being worse because I expected more from them. Every Finger Eleven fan loves Nirvana, and they are one of the bands on here who show the most Nirvana influence in their music, so I wanted to hear more from them than a lackluster, open-mike style cover. Come As You Are
suffers from the same uneven tracklist that all tribute albums do, but it boasts a strong group of bands and is mostly able to overcome the other pitfalls associated with such projects.
Earlier I said that there were too many moments on Nevermind
that should have been catchy or pretty but were steered toward abrasiveness and ugliness instead. It was the biggest problem I had with the album. So much weight is given to Kurt Cobain's depression and mental instability as it pertains to Nirvana's music. People say that they wouldn't be nearly so popular if he hadn't killed himself and maybe that's true. But I don't think Nirvana would have sounded any different without Cobain's issues because I don't hear
those issues on Nevermind
. I don't hear vulnerability or sadness or depression. I don't hear much emotion at all. I hear simple lyrics, simple music, simple melodies. I hear something that can be, momentarily, catchy in its own twisted way, and beautiful if viewed through certain lenses, but certainly not to me in my right mind. I don't mean to say it's not unique; that's the one thing I'm sure it is. Some call it a pop record, others would say it's a rock record. The two aren't mutually exclusive, but one would be hard-pressed to find two people on the street who would agree on what to call Nevermind
. Whether or not it deserves the acclaim it receives is not at issue here. Accolades should mean nothing to a music lover. This compilation succeeds because I saw, however briefly, the flashes of brilliance that Nevermind
is supposed to contain. mewithoutYou's cover of “In Bloom” is what the original album should have been. It's gorgeous, yes, but that's not really what I mean. I wouldn't hate an album just for being ugly. But their cover brings out a startling vulnerability that I couldn't hear in the original, that was impossible
to hear underneath the distortion and the fuzz. But with only an acoustic guitar, laconic and clean-toned tremolo picking, and Aaron Weiss's dreamy vocals, “In Bloom,” and the rest of the compilation, truly does bloom. It's what I expected to hear the first time I sat down to listen to Nevermind
, what I would expect to hear from a songwriter purported to be severely depressed yet still a pretty okay guy – a song of burgeoning hope undercut by a smiling sort of sadness, a sadness that knows it won't be alright but the world is still going to spin anyway.