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Monday, July 18, 2016

Nirvana -- Nevermind


My favorite Nirvana story goes a little something like this:
One day my good friend Leblanc and I are riding to youth group in his mom's car. We pick up one of his friends and he gets in and holds up a bag.
"I've got something for you," he says.
"What?" we ask.
"Nevermind." he says.
"What do you mean, never mind? Are you not going to give it to us now?"
"No. I am going to give it to you. Nevermind."
"Wait, what? Are you going to give it to us or what?"
He holds it out. "Here. Nevermind."
"Why are you holding it out if you don't want us to take it?!"
"No! Nirvana. Nevermind."
"Oh, cool. ...So we can still have it, right?
That true-life Abbott and Costello routine brought to you by a pre-ubiquitous Internet early 90's.
That leads us right back into the last post's discussion. It's not really a discussion, though, because I am the only one who is talking.
My friend and I both liked Nirvana, having seen the video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on MTV. Some stereotypical Gen X'ers would rather adamantly remind you, gentle reader, that "In my day, MTV actually played videos (It was Music Television)," by this Gen x'er would like to go a step further, and remind that not only did MTV play videos, but for many of us, was our main exposure to new music. Before radio stations in South Louisiana were frequently blasting out Nirvana, MTV was showing their videos on national television, and those of us in junior high, high school, and college were watching.

I remember conversations between my cousin Amber and I on the way to school about this video directly after it first aired (yes, physical, non-electronic conversations!!!). Of course we thought it was awesome. Who under the age of 30 didn't? It is awesome. It contains so much incredible 90's Gen X flavor:
You have the completely apathetic crowd and disinterested (tattooed) cheerleaders with anarchy symbols on their uniforms (of course I had crushes on them). You have the yellow-tinted, impressionistic lighting. The lack of focus on the band members themselves (according to the video's director on a Nirvana DVD commentary, Cobain was the least vain artist he ever worked with). The throwaway shots to the weird, carnivalesque janitor dancing with his broom. And (chronologically) last, you have the seated teens getting up and surging forward in discontented riot.
I've seen this video and heard this song a million times over the last 25 years, and it's still awesome. And this is just Nevermind's first song.
Being first exposed to this song on television is a distinctly pre-Millennial experience. Those of us Generation X and older watched it when it happened. The Millennials watched it on Youtube or on retrospectives. However, I am realizing that I am not here to bury the Millennials, but to contextualize their experience. I know a lot of Millennials who love Nirvana. For them, Nirvana is more deified, with the myth and legend of Nirvana taking precedence, whereas those of us alive and aware of what was going on have a more complex relationship with the band. Living through it, Nirvana seemed more an embodiment of the times than some incredible, historically invincible band. As a late-period Gen X'er, I think the relationship I have to Bob Marley's music is similar to Millennials relationship to Nirvana. I was born around the time Marley's final, non-posthumous album was released, and my Baby Boomer hippie mother played Marley frequently throughout my childhood. I loved his music, and I still love his music, but it means something different to my mother than it does to me. For me, it's legendary, a still image, music that makes me feel good. I imagine, though, that my mother connects to it on a deeper, more experiential level.
Millennials have a running gag, which you can easily view in the Youtube comments (a favorite Millennial hangout) of any Nirvana video. That gag can be boiled down to: "I saw this girl in the hall today with a Nirvana shirt on. I asked her what her favorite Nirvana song was. She said, "What are you talking about?" and walked away. SMH." Millennial band, Underoath, whom I have mocked mercilessly for years, even though I personally purchased their final two albums after inheriting my Millennial wife's to that point complete Underoath collection, frequently wear Nirvana shirts. I suspect they do this because they think Nirvana is cool. But I don't think the disaffected apathy that connected me and millions of others to Nirvana in the early 90's registers with them--I think their sheer enthusiasm in regard to Nirvana reveals their ages just as well as their Facebook accounts do.
Hey, Nevermind is a great album. I've got a great deal left to say about Gen X and Millennials, but I've got two more reviews to say it. Let's get to this 49-minute masterpiece.
Completely ignoring it's genre and subject matter, Nevermind checks off my "Great Album" boxes: (time for another colon break!)
A perfectly paced diversity of tempos. Variety in sound. A genuine emotional arc. Kinetic energy.
Not ignoring its genre and subject matter, Nevermind is essentially perfect.
Nevermind begins with the kick in the pants of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," summing up the album, the band, and on a really general level, a generation, with the lyric

I found it hard, it was hard to find/Oh well, whatever, nevermind

But what I REALLY like is the quiet atmosphere of the verses, with Cobain minimalistically picking out two chorus effect-laden notes, as the bass and drums drive steady, before the atmosphere explodes in the choruses and fully blossomsin the guitar solo bridge.
I love how "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is immediately followed by the steady, no-nonsense Bloom, and the slower, even more atmospheric "Come as You Are," which takes Cobain's use of a chorus effects pedal (which makes his guitar sound like it's underwater) to the maximum (the video director certainly agreed, making water a key visual component)

And there you have it, boom, boom, boom, three timeless singles one after the other, and the album has just started. Nevermind then wisely does what any album beginning with three popular singles should--immediately follow them with a fast-paced rager, a role "Breed" embodies perfectly. And then it's single time once more.
"Lithium" highlights Nevermind's quiet-to-loud dynamic better than perhaps any Nirvana track, and I must admit, with all my raging junior-high chemicals boiling around, gave me the most emotion back in the day. Day in my back. Get off my lawn. I'm not gonna crack. ...Let's just quickly hit every song.
"Polly" is the softest one Nirvana recorded, yet it is suitably dark, especially the faux-misogynistic lyrics. "Territorial Pissings" is the loud, violent counterpoint to "Polly." "Drain You" finds the balance between both, and it's got a great atmospheric, brooding bridge. If you haven't got the memo yet, I am, and have always been a fan of atmosphere. The mid-tempo "Lounge Act" gives the feeling that some impending end is coming. "Stay Away" is one last shot of aggression. "On a Plain" is the final calm before the storm, a false sense of security, and a great listen. "Something in the Way" is the slow, brooding storm, mostly guitar, a cello, and Cobain's desperate voice singing of dark isolation. After the generationally inclusive start of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," it's fitting that Nevermind ends with Cobain, bleak and alone.

1991 DGC
1. Smells Like Teen Spirit 5:01
2. In Bloom 4:14
3. Come as You Are 3:39
4. Breed 3:03
5. Lithium 4:17
6. Polly 2:57
7. Territorial Pissings 2:22
8. Drain You 3:43
9. Lounge Act 2:36
10. Stay Away 3:32
11. On a Plain 3:16
12. Something in the Way 3:46


Azure Ides-Grey said...

Not at Underoath fan? I'm surprised ... I don't think I've ever heard hardly anyway say they didn't like Underoath. Personally, I think they've got some great stuff, especially "The Changing of Times."

Nicholas said...

It's not necessarily that I don't like their music--to some extent, I like it quite a bit, especially Define the Great Line. It's just the changing of the guard (ha!) that they represent between the 80's art rock/90's alternative and metal I cut my teeth on, and the screamo/emo of the 00's that makes me put on my angry old man face. I can't say that their music is bad--my household has every one of their albums between us--but I have always had a strange, unexplainable ambivalence toward the band, which generally results in me making fun of them. These feelings were so complex, that four years ago, I wrote this:
Though I feel I am now coming around to a simple, "They represent the generation that came after me, and though I can appreciate some of the things they did, I feel a generic distaste for and distrust of them.

Azure Ides-Grey said...

Looking forward to giving that post a read tomorrow.