HEAVEN UP HERE
TRIOS ARE perfect. Live, and on record. There’s no refuting the fact. When such bands get the balance right, there’s no stopping them. Think or The Jam, Young Marble Giants, Dinosaur Jr., Hüsker Dü, Rush… Nirvana. Trios strip music down to its basics and then, having worked out what it is that makes said music work, build it up again with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of effect. Four’s unnecessary, five is unwieldy. Three is just about perfection.
It’s gotta be. The three finest albums to have come out of what could be loosely termed “the US Collegiate Scene” have all been made by trios. First there was Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade. Then Dinosaur Jr.’s first, Dinosaur. And now Nevermind, Nirvana’s startling follow-up to their 1989 debut Bleach. Forget all the prejudices you may or may not have about bands whose origins may or may not lie in Seattle’s Sub Pop scene of three years back. There will not be a better straight-ahead rock album than Nevermind released all year.
A lot of this is down to the sheer melody of the songs — songs such as the outrageously plangent ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, which opens this album and blows the listener straight outta the water. Songs such as the two which follow it and make for as strong an opening sequence as anything since that of The Jam’s Setting Sons: the menacingly poignant ‘In Bloom’ with its rapture-full hookline of “He’s the one/Who writes all our pretty songs/And he likes to sing along/And he likes to snoot his gun/But he don’t know what it means”; and the unfathomably wistful ‘Come As You Are’. And how about the acoustic ‘Polly’, with Chris’s sotto lead bass, which finishes side one? But we’re merely talking melody and harmony and tunefulness and all those kinda things you’d more commonly associate with some band with their toes stuck deeply in the Sixties — The La’s, say. Nirvana (produced here by Killdozer bod Butch Vig) have far more going for them than that.
Nirvana have power, oozing out of every guitar line and ripped snare — just check side two’s opener, ‘Territorial Pissings’, which wouldn’t have been out of place on Metallica’s latest, or the hyper-ventilating guitars of ‘Lithium’. Listen to the turbo-charged ‘Stay Away’, perhaps the only weak link here, or ‘On A Plain’, a raw blister of pain.
Nirvana have emotion, raw emotion, the sort where the singer bares his soul all the way down the line and with the use of but a few simple words and phrases communicates way deeper with the listener than this sort of music is meant to. Take ‘Drain You’ and ‘Lounge Act’, for example, with the words coming from Kurdt Kobain’s cracked, hurt voice almost indecipherable, but dreadfully moving nonetheless. And when he starts screaming, unable to bear whatever demons he sees crushing down on top of him, it’s like your worst nightmares about babies crying and buses crashing and skyscrapers falling come true all at once. Never underestimate the power of a good scream.
When Nirvana released Bleach all those years ago, the more sussed among us figured they had the potential to make an album which would blow every other contender away. My God, have they proved us right.
© Everett True, Melody Maker, 14 September 1991