Nirvana – Nevermind: Is It a Great Album?

Album cover for Nirvana "Nevermind"

We were restless. We were young and passionate and starving for great music, music with an edge, music that expressed the turmoil of how we felt. It was 1991 and it was a difficult time to love rock. Hard rock was dominated by bands like Warrant and Extreme and Tesla, bands who could sell out arenas but were devoid of substance. For the first time, Billboard was relying on science rather than speculation, and there was proof that popular tastes were shifting to country and hip-hop. We desperately latched onto mediocre bands—Living Colour, Faith No More, Queensryche—like they were lifeboats on the Titanic. We weren’t wrong for speculating that rock was dead because all signs were pointing that way.

There are only a few moments in my life when I could tangibly feel a cultural shift occurring around me in real time. Not because of what I read in the news or saw on TV, but because of what people around me were feeling and saying and doing. One of those moments was September of 1991, when Nevermind was released.

I was struck by “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the first time I heard it, and so was everyone I knew. I tried to buy Nevermind a couple of times at my local Tower Records, but it was always sold out. (Geffen expected the album to be a sleeper so it was surprisingly tough to find in the first few weeks of its release.) After hearing “Teen Spirit” a half-dozen times on MTV, though, I started to lose interest. It was a good song and I loved the dynamics, but it lacked depth. When I finally had a chance to hear the full album a couple of months later, I was bored within the first three songs.

I’m revisiting Nevermind on its 30th anniversary in hopes of bringing a beginner’s mind to what might be my first listen to the entire record. I recognize that it is one of the most important albums of the past 30 years, but I also recognize that it left me cold. No other record shaped Generation X* the way Nevermind did, but is it truly a great album?

I put on my headphones and play the opening track, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The music grabs me the way it did the first time I heard it, and the percolating bass and that two-note guitar line in the first verse immediately transport me to a year that’s been dead for 30 years. As I come back to the present, though, I’m faced with the lyrics. Bob said it well: The Boomers got “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” and we got mosquitos and libidos.

For 30 years, people have debated Kurt Cobain’s skill as a lyricist. As I pay close attention to the lyrics on Nevermind, I’m surprised by how little they actually say. I like that the lyrics are cryptic and open enough so each listener can bring their own interpretation, but there’s a line where “cryptic” and “open to interpretation” just become bad. For me, Cobain’s lyrics fall on the wrong side of that line.

Lyrics and words are very different, though, much in the way songs and chords are different. Cobain’s words say an enormous amount. He used thematic words throughout Nevermind, words about violence, death, sex, loss, pills, mental illness, and pain. Those words, combined with Cobain’s songwriting and vocal delivery, resonate in powerful ways.

In 1991, we were starting to realize the depth of the mess we inherited from the Boomers. The Boomers had a hedonistic party of faceless sex while we came of age under the death sentence of AIDS. The Boomers had a TV star who raised a cute chimpanzee while we struggled with the legacy of a president who systematically dismantled our social safety nets. And while mental illness was heavily stigmatized for both Boomers and Gen-Xers, new medicines were inspiring our parents and physicians to treat our frustration and social anxiety as if they were infections that could be cured with pills. Cobain anchored his songs with words and phrases—stupid and contagious, I don’t have a gun, I’m not gonna crack, stay away—that clearly spoke to our confusion and discontent with the world we were inheriting.

When I think of Cobain’s word choices and vocal delivery rather than his lyrics, Nevermind becomes entirely new to me. Nirvana managed to bond a generation not because the lyrics spoke to how we felt, but because the words and music felt how we felt. While it’s easy to complain that the Boomers got Bob Dylan, Dylan’s music—his chords, his melodies, his vocal delivery—never captured the chaos of what I felt, especially during those years when I was transitioning into adulthood. Nevermind communicated to my generation in ways Dylan never could.

A big part of that communication is how the songs are composed and arranged. The songwriting on Nevermind felt revolutionary. To take you back to what mainstream rock songs sounded like in ’91, consider Warrant’s “She’s My Cherry Pie,” Extreme’s “More Than Words,” and Tesla’s “Signs.” Within 10 seconds, each of these songs told you exactly what you were getting: a raunchy hair metal song, a power ballad, and an acoustic rebel anthem, respectively. We all knew exactly what Nirvana was giving us the first time we heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but then 25 seconds in, they did a massive bait-and-switch. Ten seconds later, they surprised us again with Cobain’s vocals, which were neither a metal scream, a hard rock growl, nor a punk shout. Cobain waited 35 seconds before he started singing, and song intros in 1991 were simply not that long, especially for relatively unknown bands on major labels. Nirvana accomplished more in the first 45 seconds of “Teen Spirit” than most artists from Billboard’s Top 200 of 1991 did in their entire careers.

There is much less debate about Cobain as a songwriter than as a lyricist, and these songs prove why. The long intros give the songs an opportunity to unfold organically, something that is even rarer today with Spotify’s 30-second payment rule. The first three songs follow a similar formula, but the rest of the album mixes straightforward punk with unexpected surprises. A composer I once knew commented that Cobain, either intentionally or intuitively, followed the same compositional rules that guided people like Wagner. I don’t have the musical knowledge to know whether that’s true, but it definitely wouldn’t surprise me.

After listening to the album several times, though, I find myself coming full circle to the question that motivated me to revisit the record: Is Nevermind a great album?

If the definition of a great album is simply that it moves us, then Nevermind is undeniably great because it moved an entire generation. I don’t accept that definition, though. A great album must move us, but it needs more than that. A great album is complex and rich and multifaceted. A great album holds secrets that it doesn’t reveal until you’ve listened to it hundreds of times. Great albums navigate a range of emotions, and they often hide pain within joyful noise and joy within painful dirges.

Nevermind is great in the way that Damaged and Doolittle and Zen Arcade are great: they are extraordinary genre albums that connected small groups of people who felt disconnected from the world around them. What nobody realized in 1991, though, is how big that small group of people really was. Nevermind was in the right place at the right time, and its ability to shape an entire generation unquestionably makes it an important record.

It is not, however, a great record. Sgt. Pepper’s and London Calling and Thriller are great records. They were built on great bones, and everything on those bones fleshed out the greatness. That’s not the case with Nevermind. The lyrics are meaningless at best and nihilistic at worst. The songs are redundant. The pain overwhelms all other emotions. Nevermind is a bolt of lightning that struck in the right place at the right time. It was the perfect album for fall of 1991, but it’s not a great album.

*Lumping millions of different people into “we” statements and generational cohorts is lazy at best and explicitly deceitful and harmful at worst. When I refer to “we” or to generational cohorts, I am focused on those of us who were fortunate enough to spend our time philosophically contemplating music and youthful idealism.

About Chuck

Chuck is a lifelong music lover. He spent his 20s working as a professional musician before discovering he enjoys listening to music more than playing it. He knows a little bit about most genres, though electronic dance music, rock, and hip-hop are his favorites. Eleven albums/shows that transformed how he sees and hears the world (in order he encountered them): Fleetwood Mac Rumours; Van Halen Fair Warning; The Cure Standing on a Beach; John Coltrane Crescent; De La Soul Three Feet High and Rising; Puccini La Boheme (de los Angeles, Bjorling, Beecham); Everything but the Girl Walking Wounded; Carl Cox, Twilo, NYC, May 2000; Godspeed You! Black Emperor Yanqui U.X.O.; Grateful Dead. Fillmore East, NYC, April 1971; Taylor Swift 1989.

6 thoughts on “Nirvana – Nevermind: Is It a Great Album?

  1. bobvinyl

    For me, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” felt like vindication. After years of being picked on and left out, something I liked was going to be big. Punk was on the radio! This wasn’t an Exploited t-shirt on 21 Jump Street; it was punk on 98 Rock, the blandest of the bland rock station in the bad radio town that was Baltimore in 1991. I had heard of Nirvana and was already listening to Soundgarden and Mudhoney for a year or two, but was still on the fringes. Everything had changed when I heard Nirvana on the radio, I thought. It turns out though that it hadn’t. Punk was being co-opted by the “normals” and would become normal itself soon enough and I was still a freak. There was no opportunity for I-told-you-so’s from me or humble groveling from my antagonists. But in 1991, it seemed like my time had come … and it felt good even if briefly.

    All that being said, Nirvana didn’t hold up for me, maybe because it was stolen or maybe because it was the right record at the right moment and that moment passed. Maybe because it was the hero worship of Kurt Cobain or because I really did like Soundgraden and Mudhoney better. Maybe it was because later In Utero sucked and no one would say it. Maybe it was because Nirvana spawned Gen X’s version of Foreigner. Probably, it was a little bit of each of those things. One thing that did make Nevermind stick out though is that the songs were, despite a lot of fuzz and Cobain’s whining/yelling voice which were actually catchy and 180 degrees from the previous decade’s over-produced fluff. Nevermind was the right album at the right time, but in a sense in the way Elvis was the right singer at the right time, because both bridged two worlds without really compromising (at the point they both really mattered, at least).

    You said a lot of things that needed to be said (and often aren’t said by the partisan camps of Cobain-is-a-genius versus Cobain-is-a-flake) about Nevermind, but I think the single most important point you made is about the words versus the lyrics. My clever observation about Dylan and the Boomers versus Cobain and the Xers turned out to be pretty superficial, because I think you’re absolutely right about why it resonated. He didn’t build a narrative that made sense, but more of a mood that we understood as we emerged from the false opulence of the 80’s and realized that we might be the first generation to make less in real dollars than our parents and that maybe America still has a lot wrong and that maybe partying wasn’t the answer after all. Maybe a narrative would have inspired more than whining and self-loathing, but maybe not. Maybe it is what we needed as some kind of catharsis before we could move on. Either way though, your point is one I have never seen before regrading Nirvana and seems to escape even Cobain’s most ardent apologists, but I think it may be the most important point there is to make about the whole album and even the whole band.

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  2. bobvinyl

    Also, I don’t think Faith No More is mediocre. When “Epic” hit, they seemed like a novelty, but I think they were pretty adventurous. They’re only important within a silo perhaps and we may be able to blame some of nu-metal on them, but they were a pretty fearless and innovative band (and pretty good live to boot). I still like Living Colour, but they are merely a mediocre that still appeals to me personally. I don’t think Queensryche requires any discussion beyond your generosity in lumping them in with the others.

    I do think the choice of those three bands to represent what we were reaching for just before Nevermind happened is interesting, because all three represent some attempt to do something different in rock (rock as something more eclectic, rock as something more funky and rock as something smarter, respectively). I’m not saying they all succeeded in those goals, but as you alluded to, we were grasping at straws and those were the straws we had at the moment.

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  3. Chuck Post author

    It’s cool that you were aware of what was happening in Seattle before Nevermind came out, and that you saw it as an opportunity to be both validated and vindicated after years of being dismissed because of the music you loved. I wasn’t a punk fan so I didn’t have that personal connection, but I still relate to that feeling of being dismissed because of what music you listened to. There was a brief moment in the early ’90s where subgroups and genres stopped mattering so much, and groups of people that hadn’t really interacted in the past came together because of their shared connection through Nevermind. It was cool, but as you said, it inevitably paved the way for the Foreigners of grunge. Looking back now, it’s actually a bit shocking how quickly we shifted from innovators to clones.

    And that’s a fair point about Faith No More. I debated whether I should include them alongside Living Colour and Queensryche, but they were an interesting band who was navigating a transitional time in music rather than a great hard rock band. And that was part of the problem: I’d argue there weren’t any great hard rock bands in that period from maybe ’89-’91. Metallica and their peers were still too heavy for the mainstream, and everything else was either derivative or trying too hard to break new ground. There were a lot of bands who were bending and merging genres at the time, but I can’t think of any that did it in a really great way. Personally, my hard rock lifeboat was the Dan Reed Network, another well-intentioned hybrid that ultimately fell short of doing anything truly innovative.

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  4. bobvinyl

    Metallica’s black album came out the month before Nevermind and GnR’s Use Your Illusion albums came out one week before. I would say both are at least very good hard rock records that were huge. GnR’s star would fade after that (as much their own fault at least as the cultural shift), but Metallica would continue to thrive making hard rock records. Interestingly, both bands were a bit more serious and believable than White Lion trying to show a social conscience (which in itself might be a harbinger that we wanted more than parties with big hair and big boobs).

    In the month that Nevermind came out, Trixter did a pay-per-view concert of their “Blood, Sweat and Beers” tour for their first record. A year later, their followup record went nowhere, but the GnR/Metallica tour made a bundle (with FNM opening no less). So, there were a few bands that weathered the change, but 90% of pre-Nevermind rock music would subsequently flop. We had a few years of Janes Addiction, the Singles soundtrack, RHCP, etc. that made it seem like anything was possible. It turns out that what was possible was Better Than Ezra and Bush.

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  5. Chuck Post author

    I’m not arguing there were no hard rock albums in 1991. The Warrant/Extreme/Tesla examples show that hard rock was extremely successful. My argument is that good hard rock was bordering on extinct in ’91. I agree that the Black Album was part of the movement that changed things, but it took people a while to realize that this incredibly divisive and difficult metal band was suddenly accessible on a level that they never were before. As for the Use Your Illusion records, those were death rattles of the ’80s. They were huge albums, they were well produced, and they were nearly as bad as anything Warrant or White Lion put out.

    Your point about White Lion is insightful. There was a hunger around that time for something with depth. Nirvana filled that craving and simultaneously broke down walls throughout the industry. Suddenly, new and old bands–Jane’s Addiction, RHCP, Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and even second-rate bands like Live–were providing adrenaline along with an emotional and cultural depth that bands like G’n’R completely failed to provide.

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  6. bobvinyl

    I disagree about the Use Your Illusions. They were so much better than everything else from that scene. They were ambitious and largely successful at realizing that ambition. It is true that they were bloated by the excess and could have been a single album (albeit one with zero filler), but I think they were more like the one band that stretched out beyond the formula. They fell pretty far and pretty fast after that, but those albums almost (not quite) give hair metal a purpose. Warrant and White Lion and almost every other band fit into a mold, but GnR completely overflowed that mold with the Use Your Illusions.

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