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.