align=”left” />’Nevermind’ has been so over-praised for so long, it’s no longer an album, it’s a museum piece – literally. It’s the only modern recording to be included in America’s Library Of Congress, where it nestles alongside Franklin D Roosevelt’s Presidential radio broadcasts, Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, and the Baywatch theme tune. OK, maybe not the last one.
Such hushed reverence is appropriate – not because ‘Nevermind’ is an epochal work of art, but rather because, 18 years after its release, Nirvana’s 26million-selling breakthrough album has become a dusty and calcified thing, deadened by cliché, something to be peered at in a display case, or mulled over in a Mojo magazine think-piece, rather than listened to, or danced to. Be honest: when you hear ‘Come As You Are’ or ‘In Bloom’ on your iPod, do your veins still surge with adrenaline? Or do you, like me, reach guiltily for the scroll wheel?
I’m not going to be insanely contrary and pretend ‘Nevermind’ isn’t crammed with top-drawer tunes – only an earless psychopath, or a Jedward fan, would attempt to argue that – but I do think it’s puzzling how quickly those songs have been leeched of their power through over-exposure. It’s a weirdly time-bound record – which, I’d argue, exposes an inherent shallowness in the songwriting. More fundamentally, there’s a deep phoniness to ‘Nevermind’ that makes it hard to love.
No sooner had the album hit Number 1 in the US than Kurt Cobain was claiming to be “embarrassed” by its slick production. “It’s closer to a Motley Crue record than it is a punk rock record,” he complained. Like so many Kurt declarations, this was profoundly disingenuous: Butch Vig recalls him practically cart-wheeling with joy across the studio floor when he heard the final mix of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.
Still, it’s symptomatic of the frontman’s needy, Janus-faced desire to be worshipped both by the punk-rock underground and mainstream America. Here was a guy who once had the logo of lo-fi indie label K Records tattooed on his arm to impress his then-girlfriend, Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail – yet was also entranced by the ego-inflating perks of fame (“I’m a rock star,” he liked to tell Courtney Love in the first flush of ‘Nevermind”s success, “Give me blowjobs”).
This inner conflict ultimately contributed to his suicide, or at least shaped the self-lacerating mindset that made it inevitable. But his obsessive terror of being branded a sell-out was based on self-serving, junkie logic. You want a hit record, airplay, money? Fine. Go for it. Just don’t try and pretend afterwards that you were strong-armed into it by The Man.
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Besides, Kurt was wrong about ‘Nevermind”s production. Far from detracting from the album’s brilliance, it was Andy Wallace’s crystalline mastering sheen that made the songs roar. Proof? Listen to Butch Vig’s original mix of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, before Wallace got his hands on it. It sounds dreary; there’s no bite, no excitement, no sense of lift-off. Contrast with the final radio edit, thrillingly enhanced by studio effects and digital samples.
Such techniques had the added benefit of deflecting attention from Kurt’s lyrics. It’s telling that he neglected to include complete lyrics in the album artwork, as if acknowledging that they didn’t really mean anything, and hence didn’t merit scrutiny. ‘Nevermind”s default lyrical mode is a kind of sullen, visceral, pseudo-medical gibberish (“Travel through a tube and end up in your infection” – ‘Drain You), occasionally shading into outright fraudulence.
‘Something In The Way’, for example, alludes to that favourite nugget of Kurt myth-making, the idea that he once lived rough under a bridge – which friends say he never did (this also, incidentally, gives the lie to faux-hobo Seasick Steve’s claim that he used to hang out with Kurt under that same bridge – but that’s a whole other crock of shit).
None of which detracts, argue the Cobainologists, from the fact that ‘Nevermind’ was profoundly influential, that it ‘changed rock overnight’. Really? Where do you hear its influence now, exactly? Sure, there are plenty of woeful copyists – Bush, Nickelback, Seether, Puddle Of Mudd. Admittedly, the Manics went through a Nirvana phase, though it was ‘In Utero’ they took their cues from, not ‘Nevermind’. Then there was a wave of shonky late-’90s bands – My Vitriol, JJ72 et al. But where are the Nirvana-influenced bands today? Dinosaur Pile-Up? Nine Black Alps? It’s hardly an impressive roll-call.
For two decades, rock critics have swallowed the Michael Azerrad line that Nirvana ‘swept away’ the baby boomer, AOR generation, puncturing the cartoonish excesses of hair metal, just as the Sex Pistols slayed prog. Again: really? Look who’s touring right now: Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen, U2. Today, the Download bill features far more ‘old metal’ – Motley Crue, Def Leppard, Whitesnake, Journey etc – than it does angsty alt-rock.
Recently, Nirvana fans were appalled to discover Kurt Cobain’s image had been exploited in ‘Guitar Hero’: gamers could unlock his character and make him sing Bon Jovi songs. This, apparently, was ‘sacrilege’. What struck me, though, was how natural it seemed. After all, is there really such a titanic gulf between an expensively-produced, radio-friendly rock anthem like ‘Smells Like Teen Sprit’, and an expensively-produced, radio-friendly rock anthem like ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’…?