The album that ushered in the grunge revolution is perhaps more important as a signpost in rock history than as a musical work.
Whether you love or hate Nirvana, or whether you love or hate this particular album, there’s no question that Nevermind is a hugely important work – the sort of LP that is hailed as the voice of a generation, even if – much like the Sex Pistols‘ Never Mind the Bollocks – most of that generation were completely ignoring it at the time. It’s the Nirvana album that will be owned by people who don’t normally listen to loud guitar rock but did use those ‘most important albums of all time’ lists in Q magazine and the like as a guide to what they should own. The type of album discussed with chin-stroking earnestness by people who otherwise hate this sort of thing, be it on TV art shows or at dinner parties. These people will blithely repeat the praise heaped on the album by assorted music hacks without ever actually listening to it. It’s coffee table rock, pre-approved by cultural gatekeepers – the sort of thing ostentatiously owned by people who want to show how in touch with the zeitgeist they are.
The breakout success of this album unquestionably changed the rock music landscape for some years, driving a stake through the heart of the much-loathed hair metal scene and helping a whole bunch of long-haired, plaid-shirted misfits into the spotlight for a few years. Even Britain, always resistant to American rock trends and aggressive guitar music and at the time engaged in a love affair with Ecstasy and raves, found room for the likes of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam for a few years. Meanwhile, the band who effectively pioneered the grunge sound, Mudhoney, remained outsiders looking in. So it goes.
Discussing Nevermind thirty years on is, perhaps, a fool’s errand because there are endless articles, book chapters – hell, entire books – and websites that will analyse every second of it in such minute detail that there barely seems any point in writing a few hundred words on the subject. Unless, of course, you intend to bloody-mindedly go against conventional wisdom – and who would be silly enough to do that?
I was never a great fan of grunge in general or Nirvana in particular. I was much more inclined to be listening to the vaguely contemporary industrial sound – Ministry, Revolting Cocks, Nine Inch Nails and the rest, who really did seem to be creating a new sound out of existing genres at the end of the 1980s, crashing together punk, metal, dance, hip-hop and the original industrial sounds of the late Seventies to take the moribund rock scene into a brave new world. In comparison, the grunge scene felt lumbering, unadventurous and already rather exhausted, lacking the vital energy and rebellion of punk. There was a plodding ordinariness about bands like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains and of course, the grunge scene quickly became as contrived and cliched as the hair metal scene it replaced – especially as many of the second wave acts were simply groups who swapped out the spandex and power ballads for plaid shirts, beards and studied introspection – Tinsel Town Rebellion bands, as Frank Zappa once said. Insincerity is the curse that affects every revolutionary musical movement, as bands see where the money and the record deals lie and react accordingly. Grunge became every bit as much about the fame, the money, the chicks and the drugs as the scene it so brutally replaced, and rock-star swagger in a baggy T-shirt and jeans is no different than any other sort of arrogance and adherence to a set of cliches.
Of course, moments of brilliance always shine through any scene. Even the bandwagon-jumping acts can sometimes strike gold with a single song. I certainly appreciated that Nirvana could come up with momentary explosions of genius and the sheer explosion of their breakthrough into the mainstream consciousness was unquestionably invigorating. But much like the Stone Roses – who sometimes feel like the British equivalent of Nirvana, not in sound but in the way they were quickly posited as the voice of a generation at the start of the 1990s, it all felt a little one-dimensional once you worked through the hype. When I first listened to the debut Roses LP, I was so bored by the end of side one that it took me years to get around to bothering with side two. Similarly, when I originally played Nevermind, it all began to blur into one for me after a while. In both cases, the individual songs are fine – but the cumulative effect made them seem one-dimensional.
Listening to Nevermind again now – on the one hand, distanced by time but on the other, weighed down by reputation – I don’t necessarily think I was wrong back then, though the album certainly seems a lot better than I remember. That’s the advantage of reduced expectations. But it still feels like an album where all the best tracks seemed loaded upfront – which may actually be the case, because the album is constructed like a pop LP where the crowd-pleasing hits are loaded upfront to pull fickle listeners in with immediately recognisable sounds at the top of the tracklist – or may simply be because by the time you are seven tracks in, you’ve pretty much heard every nuance the album has to offer.
What’s interesting is that behind the noise, the guitars, the shouting and the post-teenage angst, this is effectively a pop record. Smells Like Teen Spirit might have the anger and the fury to drive it, but it’s also a perfectly crafted commercial song, every moment carefully created for maximum listener impact, the hooks, the verses, the punch-the-air chorus as much staged as any other rock song aiming at the charts. Similarly, the album’s second-best known track – Come As You Are – is a determinedly populist track hiding behind the teen rebellion. None of this is a condemnation – it’s a lot harder to make a pop record, with its broad appeal commercial hooks than it is to simply thrash away, bellowing. That Nirvana could write these songs and that Butch Vig could give them enough polish to break through into the mainstream consciousness is a tribute to their skill. That they alienated more hardcore fans in the process is, unfortunately, inevitable. But bands who only ever deliver what their small band of early followers want are doomed to constant repetition, creative stagnation and dwindling returns.
I still don’t think Nevermind is particularly exceptional. It certainly has some great tracks – most of which I admittedly tend to skip when they come up on rotation but would still happily fling myself around to in a club after a certain level of drinking has occurred. I don’t begrudge it the place that it holds in rock history for a moment – but it didn’t really speak to me at the time and still doesn’t now. But would I be happier in a world where teenagers were listening to things like this instead of the detritus that fills the charts today? Of course.
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