Don your worn plaid shirts and battered Converse; we’re diving back into grunge after 30 years of Nirvana’s Nevermind.
Nevermind is often regarded as the holy grail alternative album from cult-sensations-turned-household-name, Nirvana – and the inspiration for a lot of 90s kids starting bands in their parents’ garages. But does the angst still hit as hard now, 30 years on? Our writers certainly have some thoughts…
This was a hard one to write. The first time I heard Kurt Cobain’s scuffed up voice I was sat alone on the edge of a stage in my high school hall. I’d been roped into helping with props for the sixth form play. A last-ditch attempt to shake me from my irritating teenage torpor. I wanted to be anywhere else.
Looking back, it was probably the first time I’d felt the nip of the black dog. Like most 17-year-olds, I was struggling with who I was and what I thought others wanted me to be. And getting both spectacularly wrong.
The stage manager, who picked the music playing while we worked, had left her cassette of Nevermind on loop. When I heard ‘Something In The Way’ that first time… It was like I’d been heard. Somebody else felt that no matter what they did, something always stopped them from feeling better.
Clichéd right? Angst-ridden anthem helps turn lost boy’s life round. You’re probably thinking “I bet he got the flannel shirt, the DMs, grew his hair out”. You’d be right. The long hair is long gone. But the impact that album made on me, that lasted.
Cobain was one of life’s great connectors. It’s why his loss is still felt so intensely. ‘Come As You Are’ and ‘Something In The Way’ feel like a conversation between you and him. Whenever I walk into an unfamiliar club or pub and that punch to the gut opening of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ raises above the cacophonous crowd… I feel warmer and more comforted than I ever did in that ridiculous flannel shirt.
Music done right captures a slice of time – good or bad – forever. Sometimes, when I listen to Nevermind alone, I’m sat back on that stage. Maybe that’s why I put this review off to the last minute. Writing it reminded me that it’s okay to feel like that, because 30 years later he knows thing’s work out alright.
The album itself remains one of the greatest technical feats in hard rock history. Cobain’s vocals, dripping with pain; Grohl’s drumming, as tight as Boris Johnson’s bum-cheeks when the latest polls roll in; and Novoselic’s bass, which doesn’t get the credit it deserves… None of that rough and readiness is sacrificed to turn a pretty penny by going mainstream. That’s a hell of a balancing act.
Nevermind endures because so does its songs. Mood-wise it strangely flits from ear-splitting, unconstrained chaos (‘Territorial Pissings’ and ‘Breed’) to the melodic (‘In Bloom’) and eerie stillness (Come As You Are). There are some real earworms. Not every track’s gold and yes, the lyrics are often nonsensical. But they make me feel the same now as they did 30 years ago. Can you imagine Ariana Grande managing that? Thank You, Next.
Nirvana could’ve continued moshing around in their own little genre pit. Maybe they’d have been better off. There’s no denying switching from a cult indie label to a major one and the following fame was, perhaps, the slow beginning of the end. Like creeping rot in an old house. It was music’s gain. I can’t think of a band that have energised a generation since (and no, BTS doesn’t count). Green Day came close, maybe, with American Idiot, but everything of theirs since sucks.
Debating Nevermind’s popularity, you can’t separate the album from its accompanying and currently controversial iconography, and more importantly the mythologising of Cobain. Was Nevermind really as good as we remember or was it always about him? With a mind-numbing number of pricy Nevermind reissues coming, we’ll find out.
Like a lot of people, I can remember first listening to Nevermind as a teenager and being totally blown away. It was scrappy, turbulent, discordant, anxious, distressed, defiant; it gave expression to all the hard and confusing feelings inside of me. I remember listening to this album with my best friend, dancing (awkwardly) to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ at parties, walking the streets at night with a girl I was in love with, sharing earphones so we could listen to the ironic euphoria of ‘Lithium’. It was one of those albums that instantly connected with me and, along with others, helped me move away from the music my parents and friends were listening to and find my taste in alternative music (including Pearl Jam’s Ten which is also enjoying its 30th anniversary right now and is arguably even better than Nevermind so make sure to give that one a listen to).
Given that Nevermind is so deeply associated with my formative years it is high praise, and proof that it’s a genuine masterpiece, that I don’t cringe at myself every time I return to it. Enjoying anything through the lens of nostalgia is also to enjoy it with a changed taste and the retrospective awareness that it isn’t really that good (looking at you, Steps). While listening to Nevermind again brought a depth of memories with it, I wasn’t enjoying it because I was nostalgic, I was enjoying it because it’s a phenomenal piece of art.
In the intervening years I’ve listened to a lot more music and become a much more attentive and discerning listener, and Nevermind still stands out as a masterpiece of an album. If ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ comes on the radio my ears will prick up every time, and to this day ‘Lithium’ remains one of my favourite songs; it combines feelings of intense joy with visceral loneliness and gives them a voice in something triumphant and transcendent. After everything I’ve listened to, including a lot of grunge, there’s still nothing quite like this album.
And look, I know this is a biased review and that this album really isn’t for everyone. Part of the appeal of Nirvana to me is their anti-commercial aesthetic, but that also means tracks like ‘Stay Away’ and ‘Territorial Pissings’ are deliberately aggressive and raw; if you don’t like heavy music they’re unrefined and off-putting. If you’re only into pop or classical then even the radio hits will probably feel weird and ugly. But if you have even the slightest interest in rock, then I’m certain there’s a song on this album for you. Yeah, it’s teen-angsty, but in the distorted guitar and Cobain’s struggling vocals is also something sincere, a whole spectrum of human emotion packed into a stylistic spiral that defies replication. It’s joy, and fear, and anger, pain, disillusionment, and love: it’s a musical language for the difficulty of just being. We grow up, but Nevermind keeps speaking to the angsty teen that never truly left us.
You can listen to Nevermind on most streaming platforms, including Spotify.