Review Summary: The album that changed music. All by itself.
Those who argue that Nevermind is one of the greatest albums of all time do so on the basis that it changed and defined music, single handedly, for the first five years of the 1990s. You would be hard pressed to find a single album that has done so before or since. The impact that the ultimately doomed Seattle trio made, over just seven years, makes Nirvana one of rock’s most successful artists.
Nevermind begins with Nirvana’s signature track: Smells Like Teen Spirit, which Rolling Stone Magazine ranks at #9 in its 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time for its influence and lyrics about the social pressures and anxieties faced in adolescence with a massive chorus:
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid, and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us!
The aggressive, four powerchord opening echoed down the line of the early ‘90s, being sampled by many imitating artists.
Nevermind was never meant to be as huge on the pop scene as it was. Kurt Cobain worried that his grunge credibility would be threatened. His gloom was increased when Smells Like Teen Spirit, which he didn’t feel was anywhere near his best lyrical effort, was demanded at concerts. Ultimately, Cobain’s fractured, unbearable youth would provide the lyrical structure for much of Nevermind: Smells Like Teen Spirit, the anti-judgemental Come As You Are, the chilling Polly, the characterised denial and confusion of On A Plain and the heartbreaking Something In The Way all have evidence of a troubled, anguished childhood and the terrible inner turmoil that was, sadly, never too far under the surface.
However, not all of Nevermind is a collection of underlying teenage unrest by an alternatively brilliant, damaged young man. The frenzied shred of Breed and Territorial Pissings are music as a party drug, the latter being most enjoyable when control is thrown out the window, Cobain’s voice cracks and the song smashes through logical structure of music.
In Bloom, with its blaring riff and murmured, boiling verses, would become a fan favourite and a radio staple, as would Come As You Are.
Cobain loved Drain You, which is brash, faintly repulsive yet somehow un-put-down-able. The clean cut, cynical Lithium is Cobain’s lyric writing at its best on the album, with wry, almost funny one liners turning personal slights into rebound attacks:
I’m so ugly"/ That’s OK, ‘cause so are you!
Polly, an acoustic about the rape of a young girl, is hard to listen to too often, especially with the line
Let me clip your dirty wings.
Ultimately, what makes the album is the final track Something In The Way. After the pounding and thundering of the first eleven songs, its soft, quiet desperation stands out a mile. The depressing lyrics, about Cobain living under a bridge as a young man, are graceful and poignant, with a mournfully beautiful cello playing over the chorus. A stand out.
Nevermind is difficult to fully judge. The music is more than a classic of its genre; it is the genre. The lyrics, while at times unpleasant, fit perfectly with the sound. The disillusion that Cobain felt following its success makes it tragic.
If you look at it in a purely music relevance sense, it is a classic, and arguably the most influential album of all time.