June 23, 2019

DJ Dark Flow's Masterpiece Crate #1: Nirvana - Nevermind


September 24, 1991

Starting off this 49-album series is the worldwide commercial breakthrough of an entire genre and the monolithic rise of a band destined for tragedy. Another band I have been exposed to later in life followed a similar trajectory with their frontman just over 20 years prior, and that was The Doors, a band which had a frontman full of mystery, intrigue, and demons, who ultimately succumbed to a death that was equally as suspicious as our latter subject's demise, but this group was before my time, and so I digress.

Everyone growing up knows the instantly recognizable cover. The 4-month-old baby suspended in a pool of water swimming towards the dollar bill on a fish hook takes on a meaning of its own and reflects lead singer Kurt Cobain's attitude of capitalism and commercialism. His angst and outlook on life could also be attributed to the band's hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, a state that is known for it's overcast and rainy weather, and given the physiological reaction to lack of sunshine, there is something to be said for the origins of grunge itself, which emerged predominantly from the Pacific Northwest region.

Nirvana's response to 1980s new wave, hair metal, and pop was an aggressive and abrasive mixture of distorted, drop-D guitars, booming drums, crashing cymbals, and Kurt's relentless screaming vocals. Their rebellion against mainstream music of the decade led to an almost metal-like album titled Bleach in 1989. Producing a couple of tame singles, such as About A Girl and Love Buzz, their debut album gained them moderate notoriety in their area, and they regularly toured to support it. Cobain's songwriting skills were on display in their simple, but powerful execution and their presentation showed promise for future releases. After a lineup change that dropped their former drummer Chad Channing and recruited a young Dave Grohl, Nirvana were ready to change the world and music forever.

Released at the end of 1991, Nevermind ushered in an era of 90s alternative rock and grunge music and defined a generation of young adults who felt apathy and disillusionment with American mainstream culture. It marked the beginning of a shift in the perception of youth, who mostly felt ignored and underrepresented in a music industry which previously was mostly dominated by the baby boomer generation. Overnight, Nirvana's tonal shift towards a more "poppy" grunge rock sound became a worldwide sensation, and suddenly overwhelmed Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl with superstardom and pressure to tour across the globe. The Beatles-like hysteria, thanks to Cobain's sense of humor, was later mirrored in their music video for In Bloom, their final single from the album released just over a year later. The actual explanation as to why Nevermind was propelled in this way while other iconic grunge acts, by comparison, trailed far behind may be hard to determine. It could be simply attributed to the group putting just the right amount of pop, punk, rock, and angst in an album that was the released at just the right time. While Pearl Jam's classic album Ten was released only a month prior, its stadium rock formula was already familiar to mainstream audiences thanks to acts like U2 and other arena rock bands. Nevermind, on the other hand, was the forgotten voice of a generation and it took the world by storm.

The album kicks off with a series of the group's best-known songs and opens the album up in a beautiful way. The trio, Smells Like Teen Spirit, In Bloom, and Come As You Are, all boil down the deep emotions Kurt and the band were feeling, the pain of feeling misunderstood and left behind in this world, all while mainstream audiences just want to be entertained without hearing the true meaning of their lyrics. This can be found in their now best-known song, the rock anthem Smells Like Teen Spirit. Kurt sings, "With the lights out, it's less dangerous, here we are now, entertain us, I feel stupid and contagious, here we are now, entertain us," commenting on the mindless consumerism in the music industry. In Bloom follows a similar trajectory in their chorus: "He is 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, don't know what it means, and I say yeah," as Kurt's tired attempts to get fans to understand his deep-running emotions, he feels like giving up already and saying "oh well, whatever, nevermind." Come As You Are is the first soft opening track of the album and a look into tumultuous relationships, as Kurt sings "Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be, as a friend, as a friend, as a known enemy," and later in the chorus trying to sound assuring as the sound builds in intensity, "And I swear that I don't have a gun," a mantra that repeats throughout the chorus and back half of the song. It's a chilling dichotomy of a passionate relationship that has disintegrated into a volatile and possibly violent state. What set Nirvana apart from most other music was Cobain's ability to put these deep-rooted confessions on tape, which were dressed in a catchy yet rebellious grunge rock flair. The only other artist that was putting their emotions on the line like this at the time was probably Nine Inch Nails with Trent Reznor's debut album Pretty Hate Machine, but his follow-up album will be covered in a later article.

The following tracks start the cyclical nature of the album, trading off between fast-thrashing punk rock and melancholic hard rocking tunes. Breed fits more of the former as it covers the reckless nature of starting a family and breeding with a partner. "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, she said." Lithium is a rare uplifting track in the album, which illustrates Cobain's bipolar state of mind. His previous entries in the album all have had a heaviness in subject matter and those emotions almost feel disregarded in this single of theirs, the title of which is known to treat manic-depressive disorder. The armor Cobain puts on as he sings, "I like it, I'm not gonna crack, I miss you, I'm not gonna crack, I love you, I'm not gonna crack, I killed you, I'm not gonna crack," upon further inspection is actually unnerving and alarming, but its tone is set apart from the rest of Nevermind and there is a happiness, even if temporary, in dismissing the crushing loneliness and pain Kurt feels in the land of the living. Polly is a fascinating choice for a quiet, acoustic follow-up to Lithium, and it envisions a kidnapper/prisoner relationship that was directly inspired by a publicized abduction Kurt had learned about in Tacoma, Washington in 1987. The abductor had snatched a girl leaving a rock concert one night, and subsequently hung her upside down in his mobile home and raped and tortured her with a blowtorch. Kurt decided to take some creative liberties with the story and include a part where the kidnapper is tricked into thinking that his prisoner is enjoying it, and their lowered guard helped them escape. In reality, the prisoner in this story was able to escape by jumping out of their truck at a gas station and attracting the attention of nearby people. Kurt's decision to make his lyrics in the first person perspective of the captor was his way of commenting on the vile nature of humanity and how men can and have treated women.

Territorial Pissings, like Breed, picks up the intensity as Grohl, Novoselic, and Cobain smash their instruments together. Kurt sings, "Never met a wise man, if so it's a woman," again relaying his thoughts on gender politics. "Gotta find a way, to find a way, when I'm there, gotta find a way, a better way, I had better wait." Kurt knows that there's a better way for the world to be, but understands that it's not going to change for the better anytime soon. Drain You, a love song of sorts, is full of medical references, and opens with two babies meeting each other for the first time, possibly on neighboring hospital beds. The fact that these characters are babies is most likely a reference to Kurt's thoughts on innocence and finding love at a young age. It goes down as Kurt's second favorite song, losing only to Smells Like Teen Spirit. Lounge Act is the next logical progression of losing the one you love to another. Kurt's words show that he is trying to shield himself from the hurt, but that he will ultimately "go out of [his] way, to prove [he] still, smells her on you."

The final trio of tracks all leave different parting thoughts for fans and listeners, as Stay Away is the resulting revulsion Kurt feels towards people who are followers and sheep of mainstream cultural trends. His original title of the record was going to be Sheep anyway, and with that in mind, the themes and messages of the group's music therein become all more obvious; it was probably a smarter decision to retitle it Nevermind. On A Plain, a personal favorite, is the final high point of an album full of distaste and rebellion against human nature. "One more special, message to go, and then I'm done, and I can go home, love myself, better than you, I know it's wrong, so what should I do, I'm on a plain, I can't complain." Kurt's bouts of self-love and self-serving behavior places him in a field of euphoria, but it isn't enough before he drops back into his final manic episode of darkness and self-loathing on Something In The Way. Inspiring chills in all listeners is this final, haunting ultimatum that Kurt leaves with us. This track pulls at the heartstrings of those who have felt this low, and it is the slowest song on the album. Kurt's dealings with rejection and feeling discarded from society is also a meditation on the paralyzing effects of depression. He uses the analogy of living homeless underneath a bridge. Having no friends or anyone left to rely on, it is the song that listeners who feel the same way cannot get out of their heads, and it possibly makes this final song the most affecting of the entire album.

The legacy of Nevermind is still felt to this day. Over the decades, waves of youth who feel misrepresented adorn the Nirvana memorabilia and merchandise as a badge of honor, possibly relating to the words of Kurt Cobain more than most other musicians. His tragic ending, whether self-inflicted or otherwise, is a warning of caution to those who suffer the same feelings of hopelessness growing up. It is important to talk about these dark thoughts that we have, but sometimes it just feels better, safer even, to relate to the words and the music. This album was a deeply emotional journey for myself, as I felt similar while feeling the adversity and bullying while growing up. It will remain a favorite album of mine forever, and it thus concludes the first article of my masterpiece crate series. Stay tuned for my examination on the Alice In Chains classic album, Dirt, and until that time, listen to music and connect with one another.

Recommended Tracks: In Bloom, Come As You Are, On A Plain