Nirvana’s Nevermind cut a wake through base pop sensibility and arena rock machismo of the time, its ripples felt across genres. Catapulting grunge and Nirvana into mainstream consciousness, its eventual ubiquity made Kurt Cobain and co. the reluctant voices of a new generation. And looking back 25 years later, it’s impossible to think of music today without its influence, so we dug in for a track-by-track analysis.
1. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
If 1991 was The Year Punk Broke, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the song that broke it. The harbinger for 9.4 million U.S. album sales, in the lead up to Nevermind, lead single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and its tongue-in-cheek apathy didn’t initially chart upon release, but heavy rotation on campus and modern rock radio stations – and after that, MTV – launched the band into the stratosphere. As with most of their success, the band eventually became uncomfortable with the attention the song attracted, careful not to produce any repeats on Nevermind follow-up In Utero. It’s been covered by Patti Smith, the Melvins, and too many others to mention, parodied by Weird Al and Pansy Division, co-opted into a barbershop quartet bit by the Muppets, and hurled at pre-teens at middle school music video dances ever since.
2. “In Bloom”
It’s perfectly fitting that the track immediately following the breakthrough single opening their mainstream blockbuster would chastise the audiences coming at the band from outside the underground music scene, but, in the context of Nevermind’s ubiquity, it was just another capital-H Hit. As Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad wrote, it ironically “translated even better to the mass popularity the band enjoyed,” its anti-chorus “so catchy that millions of people actually do sing along to it.”
3. “Come as You Are”
Riding in on a watery chorus-effected guitar intro, Nevermind’s second single was Nirvana’s call for safer spaces and inclusivity, marked by lyrics highlighting the torrent of contradictory, alienating messages and expectations hurled out by mainstream culture. The song’s title now decorates the sign at the edge of Cobain’s native Aberdeen, where a Kurt Cobain memorial park and youth centre are in the works – and here in Toronto, it’s honoured by a (newly online-only) co-op sex shop of the same name.
While most of Nevermind is coloured by Cobain’s efforts to test his pop sensibilities within grungier waters, “Breed” takes the pummeling velocity of Bleach and points it at suburban, middle-class, nuclear family America. Riding on a spiraling, repetitive rhythm section and repetition, it’s a dramatic sound painting of the vanilla ideal left on Generation X’s doorstep – so effective Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt praised it as “hypnotic.”
Nevermind’s third single, spoke to Cobain’s introspection and a heavily medicated nation of self-doubt and religious worship, its title invoking a drug often used in treating major depressive disorder. A commentary on the “opiate of the masses,” as described by Michael Azerrad. Recording it was notoriously difficult, and, after one particularly bad take, it actually precipitated a noise jam (and temper tantrum) that would eventually become Nevermind’s hidden bonus track.
For all its quiet-loud dynamics, most of the quiet(er) parts on Nevermind serve to intensify Nevermind’s loudness, but here, they’re allowed to speak for themselves. So as Cobain’s news-inspired lyrics stylistically condemn violence against women, there aren’t any throw downs to be had; the cymbal crashes (recorded at Smart Studios following the 1989 release of Bleach, former Nirvana drummer Chad Channing’s only contributions to the album) hint at bigger moments, but ultimately force the listener to pay closer attention to the band’s ethics.
7. “Territorial Pissings”
Despite the interviews Cobain would later spend deflecting titles like “voice of a generation,” Nirvana did a lot of legwork editorializing the cultural contributions of generations past. Opening with a mutated offering of Youngbloods’s “Get Together,” “Territorial Pissings” rips at the throat of hippy counterculture with raw punk energy, smash cutting to high octane, distortion drenched nihilism: “Gotta find a way, a better way, I’d better wait.”
8. “Drain You”
The b-side to Nevermind’s lead single, “Drain You” often gets short shrift, but on an album thriving on its extremes, it’s also the at its most indulgent. According to producer Butch Vig, it contains more guitar tracks than anywhere else on the record, as well as an abstract sprawl containing 17 bars of squeaky toys, aerosol cans, and other noise makers that Dave Grohl has called the album’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
9. “Lounge Act”
Nevermind’s most polished and accessible entry, “Lounge Act” also bares the distinction of displaying Kurt Cobain at his most transparent, detailing all the scrambled feelings of jealousy, insecurity, and overbearingness that rocked his relationship with ex-girlfriend Tobi Vail (Bikini Kill). It’s a surprise there aren’t more think pieces about this one, honestly.
10. “Stay Away”
Included as “Pay to Play” on the demo Nirvana used to shop around for a major after catching wind of a rumour Sub Pop would sign on as a subsidiary for one anyway, “Stay Away” was an audacious commentary on the commercialist intention to seize on a scene’s style, especially considering what the band intended to do with it.
11. “On a Plain”
Like “Polly,” and “Stay Away,” “On a Plain” was long a part of Nirvana repertoire before Nevermind, dating back to 1990. A bit of meta-songwriting, it’s a song about writing a song. Here, that’s an idea explored in production too, with an audible handclap mixed in amongst the opening noise.
12. “Something in the Way”
The (official) final entry on Nevermind is the album’s quietest. The other side to its “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hi-jacked rock show coin, it’s a loose, moody bookend that Cobain himself suggested was a document of his time sleeping under a bridge in Aberdeen (later refuted by Cobain biographer Charles Cross, who pointed out the Wishkah River’s tide would have had other things to say about that) but it leaves most of the heavy lifting up to the instrumentation itself – even calling in Kirk Canning to provide a dramatic cello line; for a band that’s almost always overshadowed by the legacy of its late frontman, it’s an important testament to the band’s versatility as well as its virtuosity.
13. “Endless, Nameless”
Originally a hidden track tacked onto the runtime of “Something in the Way,” the appropriately titled “Endless, Nameless” cranks the loud-quiet dynamics that define the album to its most discordant ends. It switches back and forth between blinding, knotty noise rock and nervous, disoriented psychedelia before devolving into a mess of feedback squelches and crumpled distortion, culminating in the dying gasps of a smashed guitar. A move that warmed plenty of fans up to touring mates Sonic Youth, no doubt.