Welcome to the first official RetroSensei’s “Record Shop” post. In case you’ve missed my previous post and you’re wondering what all this is about, you can read a bit about this new project: HERE.
As I mentioned in that previous article, I’ve always been a fan of music. For most of my childhood I enjoyed pop and and top-40 hits. I started buying and collecting music starting around age twelve or thirteen. Around that time, I was a fan of artists like MC Hammer, Madonna, Technotronic, Boyz II Men, etc. I largely ignored rock music at this time in my life. To me, it all sounded the same. Hair Bands were still in fairly heavy rotation and they really just seemed to be a dime a dozen. By the time I was fourteen, I had just returned back to the United States after living in Japan for 3 years. I once again found myself with access to American cable television – that meant Mtv. I remember vividly tuning to Mtv upon my return and seeing the video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. I had never really heard anything like that song before. The verses were hypnotic and mellow, but they were followed by a ripping, screaming chorus. I found the song enjoyable, but at the time I didn’t pay it much attention. My excitement and focus was still currently on the brand new Dangerous album by Michael Jackson as well as an upcoming record by SNAP! (yes, the “I got the power” people)…
Nirvana’s Nevermind was released in the fall of 1991. It is actually their sophomore album. But it is the record that introduced them to the world.
It wasn’t until the video for “Lithium” hit the airwaves that I really started paying attention to Nirvana. This song followed the same formula as “Teen Spirit” – slow verses, with a rocking chorus. But to me, I found the song much more appealing. The next song by Nirvana that caught my attention was “Come As You Are”. This was really interesting music. It wasn’t like the other rock and roll that was in heavy rotation at the time. I found myself tuning my radio to the local rock station in hopes of catching one of these songs on the air.
Eventually, I grew tired of waiting on the radio and I spent my allowance on the Nevermind CD. This record changed my entire perception on just what music was all about.
Up until now, I experienced music somewhat passively. I enjoyed it, and occasionally found it insightful and moving. But I was never really inspired by it. Now, I’m not going to claim that the majority of the songs on Nevermind are profound. To be honest, most of Kurt Cobain’s lyrics are trash, in my opinion. But there’s certainly a raw energy and passion behind the music as a whole. Songs like “Breed”, just fill you with energy and make you want to “rock out”. Listening to some of these tunes made me was to pick up a guitar and scream my head off, just like Kurt Cobain was doing.
In fact, that’s exactly what happened. This record made me want to learn how to play the guitar. For Christmas that year, I asked my parents for one. Upon receiving it, I went to my local music shop and signed up for lessons. After a couple of months learning the basics, my guitar teacher asked me to bring in a song and he would show me how to play it. Naturally, I turned to Nevermind and I picked a tune that sounds pretty easy to play. That song was “Polly”. It was the first song I ever learned to play to completion. Being able to play a real song from start to finish is major milestone for a new musician. That was the moment I knew that I could play this instrument. Being a guitar player changed my life. Up until that point, I had always been an awkward nerdy sort of kid. I was the little guy that was picked on and teased. I didn’t like sports, instead I was interested in things like Dungeons & Dragons, comic books, and video games. Learning to play the guitar gave my a skill that grew into self-confidence. Not to mention, it was a pretty cool skill to have. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you can pick up a guitar and rock out – that’s cool. Within a few years, I had completely changed my social situation. I went from the “always nerdy dork” to the “slightly nerdy rocker”. My social life improved. My romantic life improved. All thanks to music.
If Nirvana’s Nevermind didn’t exist, I may very well have never picked up that guitar.
So that’s what this album means to me. There’s a good chance that many of you reading this are intimately familiar with this record already. It was one of the biggest selling albums of the 90’s. But, if not, let’s take a look at the record track by track. If you have a music stream subscription or if you own the record and just want to take a trip down memory lane, put it on and let’s listen together.
- Smells Like Teen Spirit – This was Nirvana’s first single of the album and arguably their most popular song. The song starts with a catchy clean-guitar chord riff, which rapidly switches to screaming distortion. Just as you start to get into it, it fades into a slow, mellow groove for the verse. As the chorus launches, we’re back to that ripping, tearing riff that opened the song. This is the formula that made Nirvana famous. They revisit this “verse-chorus-verse” pattern many times over their career. This song is a classic. It single-handedly changed rock music forever.
- In Bloom – This is a moderate tempo tune that once again follows what I call the “Nirvana Formula”. It was another hit single and it’s a catchy example of classic Nirvana
- Come As You Are – This is another favorite. The hook catches you from the very beginning and carries you through the rest of the tune. The guitars here make heavy use of the “Chorus” effect, this is an effect that gives a shimmering “wavy” underwater sound to the tune. This is a very radio-friendly jam.
- Breed – This is a rip-roaring powerchord rock fest. This might be the one song from the record that really made me want to pick up a guitar and let it rip. It’s the perfect melding of metal, punk, rock, and even pop. Fantastic tune.
- Lithium – Another “Nirvana Formula” tune. Detuned guitar, mumbled lyrics, with a ripping chorus. Another hit single.
- Polly – Here, mid-way through the record we get our first break. Unlike everything else on the album thus far, we have a mellow acoustic tune. The song is played on a dead-pan, flat sounding guitar. As terrible as that might sound in print, it worked well in the song itself. This is a fan favorite.
- Territorial Pissings – This is an odd one. The song starts off with the wacky screeching of Nirvana’s bassist, reciting the lyrics to the old hippie classic “Get Together” – this is followed by a slamming verse-chorus-verse progression. Starts off weird, ends up being a real headbanger.
- Drain You – Of all the songs on Nevermind this one is the closet to a pop song as you’re going to find. It’s catchy, upbeat, but riddled with strange lyrics. It seems like Cobain was flipping through a medical journal and just writing nonsense. But, it works and it’s a great song.
- Lounge Act – Here we come to what many consider to be the first “throwaway” track on the album. It’s a catchy tune, and not a bad one, but it’s not as memorable as nearly anything else on the record. That being said, this is not a bad song at all. So, it’s really a testament to just how good this record is.
- Stay Away – Again we have another not-so-memorable tune. But still, it’s headbanging, rocking toe-tapper. If the “filler tracks” on the record are this good, that’s how to you know you have a real winner.
- On a Plain – As the album starts to wind to a close, we get one last catchy power-chord jam. This is an often overlooked gem on the record, at least in my opinion.
- Something In The Way – This is the albums’s final official track. It brings the record to a mellow, slow-paced close. We’re once again treated to that flat, detuned acoustic guitar. This time, accompanied by a string section of all things. It’s a melodic, groovy song. A truly fantastic way to end what is a spectacular album.
- Endless, Nameless (Hidden Track) – Ahhh. It just wouldn’t the 90s without a hidden track would it? This song is not included on all copies of the album, but the majority of them will have it. This song is usually tacked on to the end of track 12 after several minutes of silence. “Endless, Nameless” is the official title of the song, and it’s a complete chaotic noise fest. Roaring guitars, screaming, wailing, sheer anarchy. I used to be absolutely enthralled by this tune. It was like… “Here’s this great record. I hope you enjoyed it. So, we’re going to end it by just screaming in your face and breaking things.” Wow.
It’s likely that most readers to this site are probably familiar with Nirvana in some capacity. But if you’ve never really sat down and gave them a listen, Nevermind is a great starting point. When listening to albums, I always suggest enjoying them on a nice Hi-Fi stereo system, or on a portable device with a good pair of headphones. When listening to classic records like this, I prefer the original release to many of the “remastered” editions. Often times, remasters are overly loud and actually contain a lower level of quality than the original album. There are exceptions to this, but in the case of Nevermind, the original CD is what you want.
When listening to a record, always listen from start to finish. Unlike pop albums, many good rock records are sequenced in a certain order. Some songs tend to be more enjoyable when following the song preceding them. Put the record on while you’re driving, or doing house work. Let it play in the background. Listen it to a few times. Some records need to grow on you. Don’t skip around. Even if a particular song doesn’t grab you right away, let it play through. Your opinion may change.
I hope you enjoyed my take on this album. It’s one that has meant a lot to me over the years. Maybe it carries, or can carry some special meaning for you as well.