Nirvana’s recording career was tragically brief. Had things gone differently we wouldn’t be including a B-sides and rarities compilation in this feature at all. And yet ‘Incesticide’ is anything but rudimentary. Out of all its hidden treasures, what makes it shine is that where an album like this should be filled with filler, it’s actually the home of Nirvana’s most out-and-out pop moments, in the form of ‘Sliver’, ‘Been A Son’ and ‘Molly’s Lips’. Most bands would be grateful to have even a fifth of ‘Incesticide’. And to be even half as good with a pun.
If ‘Bleach’ is the sound of a band half-finished, it’s still one pretty excellent work in progress. In 1989, grunge wasn’t yet a thing, and we at NME were naming ‘3 Feet High And Rising’ as album of the year – above ‘The Stone Roses’ (oops) – so the nubile young Nirvana weren’t anywhere close to occupying the zeitgeist. But even pre-Grohl, Nirvana were already doing what Nirvana did pretty well. Which is to make a melody-rich album that you can croon along to, as on the opening ‘Blew’, and it makes perfect sense alongside the visceral doofus thrill of ‘Negative Creep’.
3. ‘Unplugged In New York’
People love to talk with hushed reverence about ‘Unplugged In New York’ as some kind of spirit guide pointing toward what the band would have ended up doing had Kurt survived. Which is to rather miss the point, because this did actually happen and it was what they turned into, the emotional longing at Nirvana’s core stripped of the feedback – naked and beautiful. So ‘About A Girl’ graduates to more than a first-album curio, Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ gets its definitive reading, a generation of people were turned on to Leadbelly, little known Phoenix cowpunks the Meat Puppets were set up for life.
“Teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old,” croaked Kurt as ‘Serve The Servants’ powered itself into being. And ‘In Utero’ was the sound of a band trying to work out what shape it should take once the initial rush of good times were petering out. Since Nirvana’s good times were hardly a riot in the first place, the results were necessarily bruising. Just like the Manics’ ‘The Holy Bible’ a year later or Joy Division’s ‘Closer’, it’s impossible to divorce ‘In Utero’ from the trauma of what came next. Perhaps that’s the reason why it can’t come out on top, but between the damaged majesty of ‘All Apologies’ and the white squall of ‘Scentless Apprentice’, the album houses plenty of examples of Nirvana at their absolute finest.
For all the activity that greeted the 20th anniversary of ‘Nevermind’ in 2011, the thing turned into quite the non-event. That reunion show fronted by Adam Lambert thankfully remained the stuff of nightmares, the alternative versions that padded out the box set, as is always the case, remained resolutely For The Fans, and the exhibition in Brick Lane was laughably undernourished.
Which is all as it should be. ‘Nevermind’ is not a museum piece. And to give it the Chief Rock Writer treatment, placing it in some kind of classic rock canon is as pointless to the extent of being actually offensive. In spite of its vintage, this record still feels explosively current and alive, and as a magical synthesis of all that is great about pop and punk (and yet not being pop-punk) it remains one of music’s greatest ever ideas.
The thing to do these days is try and make the counter-intuitive case that ‘In Utero’ is actually stronger. Which, when you’re comparing it to what is very comfortably one of the greatest albums of all time, it’s not really possible to do. Seriously, have these people even heard ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’?