NIRVANA’S VERTIGINOUS ascent to stardom has to be the year’s most surprising success story. The single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ has been in heavy rotation on MTV, while the album Nevermind (David Geffen Company 24425; all three formats) has sold more than half a million copies in a couple of months and is currently lodged in the Top Ten.
What is strange about Nirvana’s popularity is that both single and album are untamed punk rock – slightly more glossily produced and tuneful than the hardcore norm but bearing no discernible signs of compromise.
It’s not so much the album’s glossy grunge that’s made it such a success, however, but the raw, raging fashion with which Nirvana articulates its feelings of impotence, bewilderment and inertia. Like other classic punk albums – the Stooges’ Funhouse, the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, Black Flag’s Damaged – it captures the particular desperation of its day, while having a handle on the perennial teen-age obsessions with boredom, claustrophobia and sex.
Lust fuels heavy metal; paranoia and rage fuel punk rock. In speaking to the press, Nirvana’s singer-guitarist, Kurt Cobain, comes across as anti-jingoist, anti-redneck, anti-misogynist, anti-materialist and so on. But on Nevermind, Nirvana’s rage is mostly unspecific and apolitical, and at times verges on incoherent. It provides a catch-all catharsis that fits in perfectly with the directionless disaffection of the 20something generation.
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ could be this generation’s version of the Sex Pistols’ 1976 single, ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’, if it weren’t for the bitter irony that pervades its title. As Nirvana knows only too well, teen spirit is routinely bottled, shrink-wrapped and sold. Mr. Cobain, acutely aware of the contradiction of operating in an industry that’s glad to turn rebellion into money, rails against the passivity of today’s youth with lyrics like “Here we are now, entertain us/How stupid and contagious.”
The song’s defiance quickly disintegrates into despondency and fatalism: “I found it hard, it’s hard to find, oh well, whatever, never mind.” The song is an anthem for kids who don’t know what they want, and probably wouldn’t have the will power to get it even if they did.
If Nevermind is about anything, it’s about the agony of blocked idealism, the way anger festers when it can find no constructive outlet. The morosely raucous ‘On a Plain’ sees Mr. Cobain weighing up his options: “What should I do?… I can’t complain/I’m on a plain… what the hell am I trying to say?” Fury seems futile and absurd, even as it’s being vented, and is soon replaced by fatigue: “One more special message to go/Then I’m done and can go home.”
Musically, Nirvana has a broad concept of punk. The group draws on the hard-rock continuum that connects 60’s garage punk, the Stooges/MC5 Detroit sound, Black Sabbath, 70’s British punk, 80’s hard-core bands like Black Flag and noise rock as played by Sonic Youth. Within the straight-and-narrow limits of the genre, Nirvana is eclectic and inventive.
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, for instance, oscillates between ominously desolate post-punk, raw-throated desperation and an agonized spasm of a riff that wails like vintage Black Sabbath. Nevermind stretches from the visceral punk-boogie pummel of ‘Breed’ to the eerie atmospherics of ‘Drain You’ and the caustic, high-velocity attack of ‘Stay Away’.
Nirvana’s 1989 debut album, Bleach, on the Sup Pop label, was bluntly bludgeoning, its aggression hampered by the lo-fi murk of the production. On Nevermind, the extra time and money provided by major label resources have allowed Nirvana to hone its attack. The result is a sort of polished rawness. Like ‘Use Your Illusion’ by Guns ‘n’ Roses, Nevermind shows that good production can actually make punk punkier.
© Simon Reynolds, The New York Times, 24 November 1991