Without a doubt, for many adolescents in the 90’s who were growing up and trying to figure themselves out, a band was discovered and before long, literally millions of people were obsessed with them. This band is Nirvana. For the early part of the decade there was simply no bigger act than these out of nowhere musicians from Seattle. The importance of the music on the scene, and on rock music itself is colossal, but with amazing beginnings come sometimes tragic ends.
Kurt Cobain was always going to be a rock star, even though it became obvious very quickly that that was the last thing he cared about. Even from early on you can sense his attitude towards the scene, and how adverse he was to fame. Thankfully though, the music was good enough that it caught on, and before long, they had arrived.
However, we’re going to jump back a bit there. The bands core, Cobain and Krist Novoselic had a rhythm and chemistry that's hard to come by. Their proper full length debut, “Bleach,” is an album full of honesty, and also of aspiring hopes. This was in the early days of the “Grunge” movement, and at this point, people hadn’t began to catch on in the vast way they would in following years. There was an interesting thing happening in the Northwest, and one of the many noteworthy aspects was the sound of a little band called “Nirvana.”
“Bleach” has this certain quality to it that’s both clearly defined and dirty. I mean seriously, it’s a gritty record, but there’s a weird charm to it at the same time. Many of the songs featured have themes of anger, isolation, and determination. “School” is one of the stand outs. Lyrics don’t always have to make much sense, but when you hear Cobain scream “No Recess,” you genuinely feel like you’re missing out on the wonderful aspects of your childhood. Other songs are more to the point and reak of failure. “Negative Creep” is full of anger, and you get the impression it’s from the point of view of a severely neglected child. One can’t but wonder when listening to these songs what brought about these dark emotions. “Bleach” is covered in these feelings.
Then, everything changed.. In the year 1991, this juggernaut of a song called “Smells Like Teen Spirit” exploded the band into public consciousness, and nothing ever was the same. By this time, Kurt and Krist had finally found a steady drummer, in the form of Dave Grohl. Having been brought on during the early “Nevermind” sessions, he added a cohesiveness and fusion to the band that wasn’t there during “Bleach.” You can just hear the band change, and overnight, the music changed, and with it, the world had begun to take notice of the Seattle sound.
“Nevermind” is still one of the best albums of the 90’s, and it’s full of amazing songs. Many times, especially with something so exacting, you may find some aging happening. Those things don’t exist when discussing “Nevermind.” “Teen Spirit,” still has the charge it had the first time you heard it, and although the video isn’t the best, it brings you back to the days when you figured out you weren’t alone. There were people just as weird and misunderstood as you, and now we all wanted to wear flannel. While “Smells like Teen Spirit” was the obvious stand out track, plenty of other songs resonated with the world at large.”In Bloom” has a crisp vocal quality to it, and the video, meant to be cheesy and reminiscent of the 50’s, hits all the right notes.
However, it’s in the non singles that the spirit of what the band truly was comes out. “Territorial Pissings” opens up with this absolutely insane drum beat(Who knew Grohl could drum…) and the whole song is in your face in the way punk rock was meant to be. The band had this ability to be as punk rock as you could be, while also including more oriented hooks and beats. It’s a rare thing, but one Nirvana seemed capable of doing almost without effort. Another quality track, and one of my all time favorite songs period is “Drain You.”The album version is awesome, but the superior version, at least in my opinion, is the live version taken “From the Muddy banks of the Wishkah” album, released years later, after all the sadness had come.
This version, full of the raw energy of their notorious live shows, is one of the best live songs I’ve ever heard, but it also is one of the tightest sounding recordings. Cobain’s voice on the live effort sounds like you would imagine it would, in a room with 10,000 people. Also great about this version is the buildup of the drums and textured layers right before the song explodes. Having had the amazing opportunity to see this band live, one single time, that energy is familiar to me, and if I had been of age to be on the floor during this concert, things would have gone down in a volatile way.
The darkest song, though, finds us at the very end of “Nevermind.” It’s a haunting, isolated track full of terrible foreshadowing and it exists purely in a world of darkness. That song, “Something in the way,” has extremely dark lyrics,and the stillness it brings to the overall effect of the record leaves you in a vulnerable place. That might be what many people didn’t get. This band was never a particularly happy one. At least not all the time. By this point, Cobain had already begun experimenting with various substances. Brought on by a worsening stomach ulcer, most things didn’t help. That’s where Heroin came in.
Nonetheless, “Nevermind” was the story of the year, and they were suddenly the biggest band on earth. To fill the time, they released a compilation of long sought after demos. The result, “Incestide” has both tinges of quality from “Bleach” and “Nevermind.” Some of it is rougher, sometimes not. Among these tracks, probably the best are “Sliver,” and “Aneurysm.” “Aneurysm” especially has the biggest sound. The production isn’t life changing, but the same charge that ignited their best songs is most certainly there. If you’ve never given it a check out, you should.
By this time though, they were the most popular band on earth. Having successfully killed the metal of Guns N’ Roses and taken the throne of the 90’s, they were poised to make their best album yet, and move into the middle of the decade as a force to be reckoned with. One of those things happened.
“In Utero,” released 1993, is a fundamentally perfect rock record. The sonic force of the band is still there, and although Butch Vig was the great choice of producer for “Nevermind,” I can’t help but think that with the forever awesome producing talent that is Steve Albini at the helm, they as a band had found their perfect collaborator. In the end though, this turned out to be untrue. The band was less than thrilled with aspects of the recording, and others were brought into make the album whole, at least in the eyes of the band.
Many of the songs featured on “In Utero” have the same aesthetic feel of other songs, but it’s more angry than previously, if that’s even possible. A track like “Scentless Apprentice” has more piss and vinegar than most songs, and it’s in this moment that you realize that this band is dangerous. A band that can speed up and exploit everything, then turn around and hit you with an eye opening sobering track is a band that is diverse, and ultimately, a group of artists that are capable of inspiring great things.
Like I mentioned earlier, I was able to see them on this album's tour. I was ten or eleven, and on a cold December night, my good natured father took me to see Nirvana, along with The Breeders and Shonen Knife. I remember the show for a few reasons. For one,it was terrible. Seriously, Nirvana weren’t even kind of amazing that night. Knowing now how horrible things were going within the band, and the state of Cobain's mind, I’m not that angry. At least I got to see them. Secondly, They played a song called “Rape Me” that royally upset my dad. Again, understandable. Maybe a song called that isn’t the best thing for a kid to hear, but oh well. The last thing though, was the upsetting realization that the big hit, and overall awesome track “Heart Shaped Box, was not being played. At the time it boggled my mind that the lead single was totally ignored, but again, knowing a bit more about the tendencies of artists to shun their best known songs, I’m not surprised at all.
Moving on though, “In Utero” features more than a few songs that are still able to hold up over time. Among those are “Pennyroyal Tea.” It has this euphoric quality to, and one of the best things about it is the strain evident on Cobain’s voice. In the studio it can be cleaned up and made to be pretty, but this band was wanting something real, and tangible. Art after all, doesn’t have to be wrapped in a little bow to get it’s point across. Moments like that are scattered all throughout the album, which ultimately makes it such a great record.
I’ve always wondered how bad things must’ve gotten though. Looking back, all the signs seem there for the picking. Tracks are increasing dark, and various metaphors for death are littered here and there. Self Loathing is also at an all time high. This is most obvious in a song like “ Radio Friendly Unit Shifter.” This is the song that not only absolves him of everything, but it’s the most bitter lyrically. Not that I like mentioning the L world, but you can’t help but wonder if this was directed at their increasingly troubling marriage. Choice lyrics include “Bi Polar Opposites Attract,” “What is wrong with me?” and of course “Do not want what I have Got.” These could all be fingers pointed at one person, or at the crumbling group at their height of monetary success, or it might be a finger pointed at this situation that an ill man simply didn’t want to be a part of. I think, most likely, it’s a nod to all three. This album, above all else, is about the dissolution of life, and of decaying minds.
But, it also features what is without a doubt one of their most mesmerizing songs. “All Apologies'', fittingly at the end of the record, has the ability to soar “In the Sun,” and bring light to all the darkness of the previous tracks. It’s not a cheerful song lyrically, but it’s a beautiful, richly layered song that brings hope. It’s still one of the best songs I’ve ever heard, and you can’t help but feel connected to the musicians.
The last recording of the band occurred on the road. The now classic “Unplugged” session is one of the most amazing things ever. It’s not only the best in the series, but it’s impossible for any other session to be that good, almost completely because of how the band went about it.
Gone were the sets of the go to hits. Instead, the band picked songs that fit the format, and although a few mildly well known tracks were presented in the acoustic spectrum, most of the album contains b-sides, lesser known cuts, and of course, quite a few covers. One of them, which I now hear more than the original, is “The Man Who Sold the World.” The song itself is masterful, but Nirvana’s version has this hauntingly ominous vibe to it. The ending of “Unplugged” though, is the most eye opening section of the entire set. “Where did You Sleep Last Night,” is a somber ballad that speaks volumes about the band's depth and talent. Originally an 18th century folk song, what the band is able to do with it is impressive to say the least. Without even trying they found and resurrected a song that fits them as well as a girl. “Unplugged” would go on to sell very well, and it also ended up being the last time they were ever filmed performing live.
As we all know now, that was the last full year of the band. Scheduled to headline Lollapalooza, the rumors started mounting that they were over. Then the overdose in Paris, which canceled the tour, and then of course, the tragic events of April 8th. Cobain, after hopping the fence in rehab, ventures back to his home in Seattle, and takes his own life. Millions mourn, and a great emerging artist is gone in a literal flash.
It’s impossible to think about what would've come of the band had he not passed. In a perfect world, the band would have simply split up, Cobain would have gotten help, figure himself out, and gone on to once again let the world listen to his amazing talents. Sadly that was not to be
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Landon Murray is a music connooisseur who craves sounds of all shapes and textures. He's seen over 2000 bands and looks forward to welcoming you into his world of sound,
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