This isn’t the first time I’ve done something on a record that’s twenty years old, and such is the amount of stuff from that period that shaped the way that I listen to music even now, it probably won’t be the last. Where this one is largely unique is in the amount of revisionist hyperbole from ‘serious’ newspaper articles in publications who want to be seen to be a bit hip but all who have seemed to have copied from the same wikipedia article and then embellished it with things that they heard once from blokes in pubs.
It’s weird seeing so many articles about this album when there are so many other albums from that same period (and a few years earlier) that anyone could pick up on and say “this is what changed everything”. Change didn’t come (1990 pun intended!) straight away, Nevermind was at the end of a chain of so many great records from some brilliant bands that every city’s underground clubs and radio stations were taking to their hearts (and ‘underground’ at that time really meant it), and it was this that kicked an already-open door off its hinges. This is not to take anything away from the band or the album, as it was something truly beautiful, but there were already plenty of people waiting for this, despite the “from out of nowhere” claims in hindsight. What Nevermind did do though, was to clear out all the clichés from what was accepted as mainstream entertainment, followed by inadvertently creating a whole new set for an entire media industry to exploit.
The serious overplay that it has now received (even though it had to be released twice as a single before it made an impact outside the clubs) may seem to have dulled Smells Like Teen Spirit‘s impact over the years, but listening to it again still makes the senses tingle. Even though my very first thought when hearing it for the very first time was “he sounds a bit like Sting in the quiet bits”, it’s one of those tracks that springs most readily to mind during High Fidelityesque “best Side A Track 1″ conversations and rightly so. This song contains pretty much everything in its five minutes (amazingly yes, it really is that long – which possibly explains initial radio reluctance) that can be found through the whole of the rest of Nevermind – guitars and drums that aren’t that far-removed from the jaded rock acts Nirvana were about to supplant, simple melodies driving lyrics that switched effortlessly between being poignant, obscure and downright unintelligible, and a skill in songwriting that transcended almost all of their supposed peers. And yes, lots of quiet/loud/quiet things. Teen Spirit is a staggering blueprint.
That’s not to say though that the album didn’t come without its surprises – Come As You Are remains soft and subtle throughout, Breed is a cheerful throwback to a Bleach album that seems generations ago rather than merely separated by one (importantly transitional) 7″ single, and of course Polly remains shocking, stripped of all embellishment and without any sign of the lyrical ambiguity that appears all over the rest of the record.
Much has been made of states of mind and sadness and fragility in hindsight with regard to Nirvana’s career as a whole, and especially now when there are so many column inches required to be filled. But I can’t see how anyone could write and perform Territorial Pissings without having an absolute blast in doing so. It’s certainly a genuinely emotional record, more so than anything else available at the time and Kurt definitely succeeds in his vision of a male/female-balanced record to great effect; but the thing that makes Nevermind such a great album is that it’s FUN. It’s fun to waft about nonchalantly during the quiet bits in Smells Like Teen Spirit and Lithium before throwing yourself about during the chorus, it’s fun to lose yourself in the mumbled beauty of Something in the Way, and it’s fun to fall for the childishly romantic notions contained in Drain You whilst having vaguely accusatory thoughts about the weirdy “Youuuu…” middle bit being nicked somehow off Mudhoney. All the strange global teen angst synchronicity in the world wouldn’t have meant a thing if the music wasn’t so alive.
As is the way of music commentary nowadays, two schools of thought have emerged in the wake of Nevermind’s 20th anniversary shenanigans: on the one hand there is the “I was there so I know all and you couldn’t understand it” snobbery; and the reactionary “it’s sooo overrated” on the other. To the first group I would say “it doesn’t matter”. I wasn’t “there” when Pink Moon, Electric Ladyland or Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake first arrived, but that hasn’t lessened my love of them now and I don’t care if my understanding of them (or any record I love) is somehow different to how it was intended at the time of their respective releases. To the latter, I’d just say “well, find something you like then”. There’s certainly a patina of hyperbole applied liberally to what is now literally a Legend (in that anyone asked about it nowadays has a completely different story, almost as if nobody ever bothered to write it down properly in the first place), but the music beneath all the wittering remains powerful and uplifting.
And after all that, I have to admit that as much as I hold Nevermind dear, it wasn’t my favourite thing of that era, it didn’t change my perception of anything in the ways that it has obviously affected others, and it’s not even my favourite Nirvana album (it took me years to get into it fully, but In Utero is a masterpiece). But it’s one of those things that is now so much bigger than anything else surrounding it that it fully deserves every plaudit it’s received over the past two decades. Not sure why it needs a remaster (one thing it never lacked to start with was depth of engineering and quality of mix), but if it gets people interested enough to give it another whirl, then fair play, although I’m sure there’s an irony somewhere in eagerly celebrating and reselling something as a revolutionary classic that their label wasn’t too bothered about in the first place.
It’s also strange that, although their success was massive and their approach to their craft was such a simple and straightforward rebellion against the drivel being thrown out on MTV and mainstream radio of the time, Nevermind’s legacy was to open the stadium doors to some utter drivel. Instead of investing in people taking up guitars in garages, the music industry seemed to decide en masse to go for the blandest and homogenised rock acts on their roster, mess up their hair a bit, stick on a beard and a plaid shirt and watch the money roll right in, while everyone stopped being political about anything at a time when not being political about anything was a very silly thing to do. This isn’t Nirvana’s fault though; they did more than most to get people to look at the world around them with new and exciting eyes, but the lyrics to In Bloom were sadly more prescient than perhaps anyone could have known. Oh well, whatever.