Commemorating the 30th anniversary of Nirvana’s controversial 1991 release, the Nevermind Super Deluxe contains 5 CDs showcasing the newly remastered album from the original analog tapes along with 4 complete concerts. In addition, a Blu-ray of the complete and recently remastered in HD Live in Amsterdam concert video is included. Also in the package is a 40-page hardcover book with unreleased photos. The material has been out a few months now, and has sold widely. It’s time to offer up a fresh look at the legacy of the band and the album.
Nevermind has been celebrated and analyzed for three decades now, and no doubt this anniversary will be another excuse to declare its significance: the spark that ignited the alternative rock revolution, a generational benchmark, a pop culture turning point and a release as transformational as Sgt. Pepper’s and Never Mind The Bollocks. It’s a load of nonsense, but it’s attractive nonsense, especially for those who see pop music history as a narrative, not a wonderfully random joyride where teenage lust, adult greed and the occasional musical innovation crash into each other like so many bumper cars.
That’s not to say that Nevermind wasn’t important to a huge number of people. In the context of the early ‘90s pop, Nirvana’s success seemed like a miracle, a wholly unexpected breaking of corporate rock’s stranglehold on the culture. If you missed the ‘60s, and were too young for punk, Nevermind was your chance to be part of genuine youth movement, or so it seemed. When the album famously knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the top of charta in early 1992, it was experienced as a vindication by fans of indie-rock, proof that their music really was better than the shit on the radio.
Back then, Nevermind seemed like a keeper, an album I would come back to for the rest of my life. But Nirvana’s music hasn’t aged well. Instead of opening up and revealing its layers with repeated plays, Nevermind gets a little less interesting every time I put it on. Butch Vig’s production is partly to blame. It cast the music in a bright sonic sheen that was perfect for FM radio, but didn’t leave any room for the songs to breathe. What once was bracing now seems cramped and claustrophobic.
When you realize the sheer abrasiveness of these songs, it makes you wonder how on earth Kurt Cobain turned them into hits. Though his screaming singing style and love of feedback seemed more suited for a small underground audience, his intense charisma and his grasp of pop melody helped Nirvana draw in the mainstream fans. His use of classic rock hooks (pinching the riff from Boston’s “More Than A Feeling” for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” for instance) was the sugar that helped the hardcore, heavy metal and punk elements go down. He turned weird indie-rock ideas into pop anthems, and, as with all the best pop anthems, his songs could be experienced as powerful affirmations—as if your entire life was somehow validated just by listening to the music.
But what strange affirmations! Cobain’s lyrics, often cobbled together from unrelated lines in his journal, paint a disturbing picture. Isn’t Nevermind’s “Polly” sung from the point of view of a rapist? And why do so many songs mention guns? For an album that ended up bringing millions of people together, it’s amazing how much of Nevermind is about rejecting human contact, as when Cobain chants “a denial” at the end of “Teen Spirit,” or writes a song whose chorus consists solely of the phrase “stay away.” Listening now, twenty-eight years after his death, it’s clear that Cobain was broken on some deep level, that his anger was not a way to work out how to live, but a protest at having to live at all.
At the time, most of this alienation was either overlooked or seen as a pose, part of the same mood which made young people call themselves slackers and wear t-shirts with the word “loser” on the front. Cobain was the refreshingly anti-rock-star rock star: uneasy with his success, genuinely concerned with his listeners, apparently introverted and kind in person. He didn’t preach like Bono or preen like Axl Rose. If he ever got on his soapbox, it was to denounce the hypocritical, the misogynistic and the homophobic. His seeming immunity to the typical rock star bullshit was part of what made his success feel so empowering. After a decade of ever more outlandish and egocentric pop idols, the most popular rock star on the planet was a reasonably sane, reasonably decent human being.
Then he blew his brains out.
His death refuted the honesty and seeming rationality of his public persona. The real person—or at least the person who won out at the last moment—was the self-loathing, gun-obsessed guy from the lyrics. The gruesome violence with which he chose to end his life was experienced by a lot of Cobain’s fans as a rebuke, a middle finger not to the usual suspects—corporate rock stars, gay-bashers and bullies—but to the people who loved his music the most. Hours after the news broke, fans at a Seattle candle-light vigil exercised their grief by shouting “Asshole! Asshole!” at the sky, as if they could communicate their disappointment to their hero as his spirit lingered over Puget Sound.
Three decades later, Nirvana’s music is still shadowed by Cobain’s suicide, and it’s impossible to consider the one without thinking of the other. It’s a shame we can’t celebrate Nevermind ‘s 30th birthday without his ghost lurking in the shadows. Who can say what this anniversary would feel like had he found the strength to live? He might have gone on to create an unprecedented body of work, of which Nevermind would be considered an early, immature example. Or he might have ended up a complete has-been, having never managed to match his earlier songs. Either way, he was a member of Generation X, and if Nevermind was the brief triumphant moment of our youth, Cobain should be here to feel old with the rest of us.