Nevermind is considered one of the most significant records of the ‘90s. Nirvana’s second studio album didn’t just introduce grunge to the masses, it also overtook the popular music scene by storm and left its mark on music history. On the 24th of September, we celebrate the day that Nevermind arrived at the record stores.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
In this blog post about Nirvana’s Nevermind
Nevermind the sound of the ‘90s
Compared to Nirvana’s first album Bleach, their second gem was a whole new breed of grunge. On their debut, the band was vicious and just too raw to handle, while on Nevermind, band leader Kurt Cobain decided to take another path. He focussed more on a poppy song structure, and worked hard on getting the right hook (the part of the song that keeps on echoing in your mind forever).
When Nevermind came out, the album was received with overwhelming enthusiasm. Cobain had succeeded in his quest to conquer the ears of the mainstream. In hindsight, critics claim that after Nevermind, the sound of the ‘90s was defined, meaning that all the hair metal bands that dominated the scene were pushed out of the mainstream into their subdomains.
Fun fact: the guy that did the final mix of Nevermind — Andy Wallace — co-produced the Slayer classic Seasons in the Abyss. Keep that in mind while you listen to the album, and we assure you that you will recognise the heaviness of a metal band. The first mix was done by producer Butch Vig, but neither he nor the band liked the end result so they brought in the big guns in the form of Wallace.
Andy Wallace adjusted mainly the guitar- and drum sound, making it sound fatter, louder, heavier. Kurt Cobain loved it since he wanted to express the contradictions of his generation (X) with the songs on the album: poppy songs that sound like Black Flag and Black Sabbath. Partially thanks to this final mix, Nevermind created the new benchmark of how a rock album should sound.
We all know him as the nicest guy in rock ‘n roll, but back in the early ‘90s, Dave Grohl was just the drummer of a hardcore punk band called Scream. After the group fell apart, Kurt Cobain and bass player Krist Novoselic gave Grohl a chance to prove himself. He had to fill the shoes of former Nirvana drummer Chad Channing. Novoselic later said in an interview that after playing together for the first time, everything just fell in the right place.
Nirvana’s greatest hits
Some of Nirvana’s greatest hits are on Nevermind, almost all guitar players that started out in the ‘90sand early ‘00s will admit that the opening chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” were the first thing they ever played. Again this is exactly in line with Kurt Cobain’s vision: create simple songs that sound raw and heavy, but are easy to listen to.
The whole album is full with basic power chord progressions and easy-to-play-along riffs. Songs like “Come As You Are”, “Lithium” and “In Bloom” sound so infectious that any millennial can humm them in their sleep.
Kurt Cobain sings about…?
One of the biggest criticisms about the record was that no one actually could really decipher what Kurt Cobain was singing. Well, of course you could understand some of the lyrics, but by far not all of them. According to his band members, Kurt Cobain wrote his lyrics during the final moments of production. Sometimes he finished the last sentence and went straight into the vocal booth to record.
This could be one of the reasons you don’t always understand what he’s singing. Producer Butch Vig said in an interview that working with the rock star wasn’t always easy. He would perform great for an hour, and after that would sit in a corner and say nothing for another hour. According to Vig and the band, most of the lyrics are about Kurt Cobain’s breakup with Bikini Kill rocker Tobi Vail and the meaningless lives we live.
Best cover ever
In the past 30 years, there hasn’t been a band that has come up with a more iconic album cover than that of Nevermind. The baby that “chases” after a dollar bill remains a great image of the nihilistic vision on life characteristic for the grunge subculture: people are born in the rat race, they live in the rat race, they die in the rat race.
To escape this rat race reality, Spencer Elden, who is the baby on the cover photographed by Kirk Weddle, tried to sue Nirvana in 2020 for portraying him as a sexworker. One of the reasons for this lawsuit was that the genitals of the baby are explicit, and not covered up by a sticker.
Fun fact is that in 1991 Kurt Cobain was only willing to compromise the hiding of the baby penis if the sticker said: “If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile.” Which of course wasn’t something the record company wanted to give in to.
Well whatever, nevermind…
Before we wrap this up, here’s a little incentive to get your creative juices flowing. Grab your guitar, or ukulele, or just sit behind your piano, and check out Nirvana’s artist page. Most songs are so easy that you probably can jam along in under an hour. And if not, just practice a bit longer. Whatever you do, just remember the final lyrics of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”: “Well, whatever… Nevermind.” Happy jamming!