"I Feel Stupid and Contagious"
During the decade before this album arrived in 1991, rock was mostly puffy shirts and pouffy hair, a tyranny of unimaginative major-label pseudo-metal (Poison, Mötley Crüe) hyped by the unquestioning pop-culture toadies at MTV. After "Smells like Teen Spirit"—which boils the restlessness of a generation down to the all-purpose bored-kid shout "Here we are now, entertain us"—just about everything was different. Including MTV.
Singer and songwriter Kurt Cobain found himself hailed as the kid with the lock on the Gen X zeitgeist, and suddenly a rather large contingent of bands and their flannel-wearing fans were disciples in the First Church of the Perpetually Distressed Kurt. Among the ironies of this trendlet: "Smells like Teen Spirit" borrows its rhythm pattern from Boston's 1975 corporate-rock anthem "More than a Feeling" and its chord progression from the 1963 party classic "Louie Louie," bits of history grunge scenesters no doubt disdained. As far as Nirvana is concerned, grunge is cobbled from refurbished parts, made relevant by its caged-animal, sick-of-it-all attitude.
On one level, Nevermind is an elaborate psych-out: There's Cobain, dispensing disconnected brain droppings ("I'm so ugly, that's OK cause so are you") like some kind of unkempt street lunatic, while underneath, he and his accomplices, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, punch out the rock with the cool precision of assembly-line workers. The rhythm guitars of "Come as You Are" or "Lithium" are, by themselves, a quintessence—brutal codes that are pumped up to larger-than-life size by producer Butch Vig and mixer Andy Wallace. The guitars are the catalysts for Cobain's jarring soft-then-loud contrasts, in which eerie verses are followed by a bases-clearing eruption on the refrain. Other rock bands did this (some say Cobain picked it up from the Pixies; see p. 602), but few made it so compelling, even when it sounded like Nirvana was smushing two disconnected songs together.
Cobain committed suicide in 1994, after struggling publicly with fame (and various addictions). He resented all vaunted appraisals of what Nirvana did. He knew he'd written great tunes—Unplugged in New York, recorded live, shows that the Nevermind songs are structurally as straightforward as the Beatles' "Eight Days a Week"—but he didn't want to be enshrined as any kind of cultural avatar. Cobain thrived on a malcontent's outsiderness, and from that perch, gave a whole bunch of people reason to believe in rock and roll again.
Released: 1991, Geffen
Key Tracks: "Smells like Teen Spirit," "Come as You Are," "Breed," "Lithium"
Catalog Choice: Unplugged in New York; In Utero
Next Stop: The Melvins: Houdini
After That: Soundgarden: Superunknown
Book Page: 553