Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’: Track-by-track 25 Years Later

Posted: by Steven Lalonde

It has been 25 years and a few days since Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic rocketed to the top of the billboard charts – albeit unexpectedly – and took the world by storm. Even thoughNevermind was their second full-length, nobody thought the nascent grunge trio would have such an overpowering impact on a generation of teenagers that suddenly transformed from listening to the king of Pop, Micheal Jackson, into punks. I’m not going to sit here and say I remember that time or what it was like, especially since I had yet to enter the world. I don’t remember the weight and backlash it had on Kurt Cobain, mentally and physically. Heck, I wasn’t even 3 years old before he took his own life and it was all over. But this is not what this piece is about. What I am writing this for is to simply show my deep and profound appreciation I have for this album. That’s really the best way I can put it. I listened to it regularly all throughout high school; it meant everything to me. I don’t believe an album will ever have the same impact and influence on me that it did. Everything I thought, did, the way I carried myself, people I hung out with, the music I listened to afterwards, it all comes back to how Nevermind made me feel. It was perfect, and still is. I have never loved an album like it since.

Of course I’m well aware that there are some people who don’t like Nirvana, or Nevermind, whether it be genuine, or ironically because it’s “cool” to hate on certain bands/albums, and this text is not an attempt to lure you to like them. I just truly think it’s important that I can show an honest gratitude for something I cherish, regardless of what people may say. So here we go, a track-by-track, re-review, appreciation of Nirvana’s Nevermind: Oh and PS. I’m going to personally rank each song at the end.

1)    “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
I can still remember when I first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” it was 1999 and I was in the car with my friend and his dad, whom was singing along to the seemingly incoherent chorus. He looked back at me through the rearview mirror and said “I have no idea what he’s saying, but I fucking love this song”. What appeals most to me about this song is it has this almost nursery-rhyme aura about it that makes you want to sing along. That and of course the thrashing rhythmic guitar chords that Cobain slashes through the entire song. The opening four chords interrupted by Grohl’s bone crushing entrance makes for a fantastic intro. Through and through, Cobain orchestrates distortion with subdued verses that allow for the almost Pixies-esque sounding quality to shine. The dyanimc shifts in reverbs and pitches accompany Cobains nuanced vocals as he shouts almost nonsensical lyrics, as if they’re stumbling out of his mouth. It’s not so much what he’s saying, but how he’s saying that gives the song the attitude it needs to set the tone for the remainder of the album.

2)    “In Bloom”
Yes. “In Bloom.” One of my all time favourite Nirvana songs. What makes this song so special for me is probably the driving baseline in between choruses. Being in a band like Nirvana, Krist Novaselic is sometimes forgotten, being the bassist in the background. But as a fellow bass player who appreciates the instrument that essentially holds everything else together, the bass grooves are perhaps some of my all time favourites. In the lyrical context of the song, Cobain again writes mysterious, heavily layered metaphors. The song is thought to be based as an attack on certain people who listen to music for the wrong reasons.  Another theme is that of the misunderstanding of teenagers; “He’s the one, who likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along, and he likes to shoot his gun, but he don’t know what it means…”. All in all it’s a solid follow up to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

3)    “Come As You Are”
As popular as this track is, and as much radio play it receives, I don’t particularly care for this track all that much. I mean, it’s still a great song with the dark, ambient tone that flows through the entire track. But in my opinion, it just seems very simple in terms of a Nirvana song. The lyrical theme itself is quite self-explanatory as Kurt sings about how society wants us to be versus how we ourselves want to be. Another interesting thought is one that stated that Kurt possibly wrote this song as an ode to his addiction to heroin and that the song is in fact a plea with his needles. Though that may be dark and a little far-fetched, we’ll never know. Overall, “Come As You Are” fits in nicely at track #3 as a song that kind of slows down the pace instrumentally, but it’s the next track that really kicks the album back into high gear.

4)    “Breed”
Arguably my favorite track on the entire album, this song just simply rips through and through. Grungy distorted guitar chords kick off what I like to call the perfect nirvana driving song. Krist Novaselic and Dave Grohl carry the load as they are attached at the hip while Kurt sings about being completely infatuated with a woman, wanting love and to be loved. As he belts out “I don’t mean to stare, we don’t have to breed, we could plant a house, we could build a tree, I don’t even care, we could have all three.” Cobain had also previously stated that the song about being stuck in middle class America, getting married at 18 and having an unwanted baby. However you interpret it is up to you, but at the chaotic pace the track follows, there might not be enough time for interpretation.

5)    “Lithium”
Another of the popular singles, Lithium, brings with it a similar song structure to Come As You Are. The opening bass line again hits home and is instantly recognizable. It moves along slowly, every line being happy, then sad, up and down, alluding to the theme of manic depression; “I’m so happy, cause today I found my friends, they’re in my head, I’m so ugly, that’s okay cause so are you.” The title track refers to lithium salts, the common drug treatment for the aforementioned mental health issue. Though a difficult subject to deal with, this song never really jumped out at me, besides the bass line. Even though it still receives a lot of radio time, and don’t get me wrong, I do like it, it’s just not the track that I’m spinning first when listening to the album.

6)    “Polly”
This song was actually one of the first songs I learned on acoustic guitar when I was about 12-13 years old. When I first heard the lyrics, I hadn’t put much thought into their meaning – much like the remainder of the album – but as I got older and started understanding the themes, I realized how dark this song is. Reportedly, this song is actually about a 14 girl who was abducted, tortured and raped in 1987 in Tacoma Washington. When Kurt sings, “I think she wants some water, to put out the blow torch,” Cobain is referring to the use of a propane blowtorch that was used to torture the girl. Even though the song carries a burdensome theme, I’ve always loved this song and how simple the chord progression is. It’s as if Cobain took a sensitive subject and wanted to promote awareness against rape and torture as non-violently as possible. This one is definitely one of my top songs on the entire record.

7)    “Territorial Pissings”
The band kicks back the album into high gear as they crank out this ripper of a song. In all honesty, it’s pretty similar to “Breed,” in the sense that when listening it’s like you get the sudden urge to drive as fast as possible. Cobain’s raspy and grating vocals are on full display as he rips and roars along with the relentless drumming and chugging bass provided by Grohl and Novaselic respectively. The chorus “Gotta find a way, find a way, when I’m there” is surprisingly catchy that you’ll try hard not to shout along with Kurt.

8)    “Drain You”
What else can you say about a song that was written about ‘an old-fashioned, dorky’ kind of love? This song is great, if it weren’t “Breed” on Track #4, this would easily be my #1 of the entire album. It starts off in perfect Nirvana fashion and delivers, in my opinion, Kurt’s best vocal performance. His grating vocals on the verse “One Baby to another says I’m lucky to have met you” gets me everytime. Not only does the song deliver on masterful vocals, but this song is another example of how tight Kurt, Krist and Dave were as a band. It’s hard to imagine this band only had 3 members given the part of the track where the guitar solo ends and then they come crashing back down into the third verse in what is absolute grungy bliss.

9)    “Lounge Act”
Another track about love, this time about Kurt’s then girlfriend at the time Tobi Vail. Aside from the opening, groovy bass intro, I don’t really have much to say about this track. It’s probably my least desired track on the whole album. There’s a point in the verse towards the end where Cobain’s singing just sounds way too strained and it seems a bit off to me. In any case, structurally speaking, this song is a Nirvana song, just not one I’d go out of my way to listen to first.

10)    “Stay Away”
What was originally titled “Pay to Play”, the song was supposedly written as a “fuck you” to clubs or venues that were charging bands to play in them. The song has a kind of roll to it, again, with Krist and Dave in perfect unison all the way through. What I love most about this one is the attitude that Kurt conveys with his almost lazy sounding despair. He sings it almost as if he’s had enough of the BS that comes with venues that treat bands like crap. That’s my impression anyways.

11)    “On A Plain”
“On A Plain” fully demonstrates Kurt’s greatest talent as a songwriter. This song is his most diverse work as he extends his reach into a broad range of issues such as depression, drugs, drug use, love, problems with his mother and even writer’s block. The chorus “I’m on a plain, mmm hmmmm, I can’t complain, mmm hmmm” is so catchy you almost forget you’re listening to a Nirvana song. At this point however, the last three songs, though distinct, are beginning to run together, in that it’s hard to pick them out as opposed to the first half of the album. Still a solid song though.

12)     “Something In The Way”
Ahh, la piece de resistance, but not really. The second acoustic song on the album closes the album in an odd way. At first, I didn’t care for the song whatsoever, but when I found out the way Butch Vig recorded it, it instantly became more interesting. Vig states that Kurt was frustrated with his inability to record the song the way he intended, so he went to lay on the couch with his guitar and started almost whispering the lyrics. Vig then realized and brought all the recording equipment to where he was lying, and voila! Given the lyrical content, many believed that Kurt was actually homeless and living under a bridge. With lyrics like “Underneath the bridge, Tarp has sprung a leak, and the animals I’ve trapped, have all become my pets,” I don’t blame people for having these thoughts. Overall, this song gets more and more dark and mysterious every time I listen to it, and I fully believe that was Kurt’s intention.

Final Rankings:
1.    Breed
2.    Drain You
3.    Polly
4.    In Bloom
5.    Stay Away
6.    Smells Like Teen Spirit
7.    Territorial Pissings
8.    On A Plain
9.    Lithium
10.    Something In The Way
11.    Come As You Are
12.    Lounge Act