DESPITE THE hand-wringing the fanzines do each time an indie-rock hero signs a major-label deal, righteous postpunk stars from Hüsker Dü to Soundgarden have joined the corporate world without debasing their music. More often than not, ambitious left-of-the-dial bands gallantly cling to their principles as they plunge into the depths of commercial failure. Integrity is a heavy burden for those trying to scale the charts.
Led by singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain, Nirvana is the latest underground bonus baby to test mainstream tolerance for alternative music. Given the small corner of public taste that nonmetal guitar rock now commands, the Washington State trio’s version of the truth is probably as credible as anyone’s. A dynamic mix of sizzling power chords, manic energy and sonic restraint, Nirvana erects sturdy melodic structures – sing-along hard rock as defined by groups like the Replacements, Pixies and Sonic Youth – but then attacks them with frenzied screaming and guitar havoc. When Cobain revs into high punk gear, shifting his versatile voice from quiet caress to raw-throated fury, the decisive control of bassist Chris Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl is all that keeps the songs from chaos. If Nirvana isn’t onto anything altogether new, Nevermind does possess the songs, character and confident spirit to be much more than a reformulation of college radio’s high-octane hits.
Nirvana’s undistinguished 1989 debut, Bleach, relied on warmed-over Seventies metal riffs, but the thrashing Nevermind boasts an adrenalized pop heart and incomparably superior material, captured with roaring clarity by coproducer Butch Vig. Cued in with occasional (and presumably intentional) tape errors, most of the songs – like ‘On a Plain’, ‘Come as You Are’ and ‘Territorial Pissings’ – exemplify the band’s skill at inscribing subtlety onto dense, noisy rock. At the album’s stylistic extremes, ‘Something in the Way’ floats a translucent cloud of acoustic guitar and cello, while ‘Breed’ and ‘Stay Away’ race flat-out, the latter ending in an awesome meltdown rumble.
Too often, underground bands squander their spunk on records they’re not ready to make, then burn out their energy and inspiration with uphill touring. Nevermind finds Nirvana at the crossroads – scrappy garageland warriors setting their sights on a land of giants.
© Ira Robbins, Rolling Stone, 28 November 1991