September 01, 2010
“Nevermind will forever be remembered as a vehicle for ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ and its subversive effect on mainstream culture. It’s periodically brilliant, but half of the material on Nevermind is filler.”
Okay. So. Part III.
One rule I set out for myself on my quest to vindicate Cobain from the evil clutches of Klosterman: I will not use the “you had to be there” argument to justify any of my feelings for Nevermind. Yes, much of the greatness of Nevermind lies in its social context, and especially its relationship to music that came before it like The Youngbloods, Aerosmith, Husker Du and so many more. But there is enough musical greatness within its contents not to need to resort to arguments relating to Nevermind’s “subversive effect on mainstream culture.” This is not a post about culture. It’s a reassessment of a great album 20 years later to see–with all of that other stuff out of the way–how great it really is, especially in relation to Appetite for Destruction, which I examined at length in Part II.
It’s hard to deny the jet propulsion of Nevermind. The production values producer Butch Vig employs on the record are so wonderfully saturated, like the colors in that giant red flower picture outside your local camera store. It gives these songs about anger, sadness, ambivalence and confusion a throbbingly romantic sheen, making the record almost a celebration of its own malaise. If Nevermind is about one thing, it’s about the romance we have with our anger. It’s about the cathartic and attention-getting aspects of it, before it becomes self-defeating, as it did for the band’s singer-songwriter. And the production, as much as any other aspect of the record, conveys that sentiment perfectly.
At some point in this post I’m going to have to admit that GnR are indeed better, more innovative musicians than any of the three Nirvanas–with the possible exception of Dave Grohl, who can play rock drums with anyone–so let’s just get it out of the way right now. There is definitely less going on musically on Nevermind than on Appetite. An easy explanation might be the fact that Nirvana is merely a three-piece to GnR’s five, but I think that lets Nirvana off the hook too easily. In the modern–hell, even the not-so-modern–recording arena, it doesn’t matter how many people are in your band; producers can put hundreds of tracks down for a single song, making any tune as big and complicated as they want it to be. No, Nirvana is more staid and by-the-book musically than Guns ‘n’ Roses, and we’re just going to have to live with that.
But in their defense, Nirvana’s raison d’etre is to cut against the barroom aesthetic Guns ‘n’ Roses so proudly espouses. It’s unfair to expect musical complexity from a band that never wanted it. We don’t blame Bob Dylan for not being Steely Dan, or vice versa. It’s simply not what they do. Working within a pop-punk aesthetic–simple progressions, hooky melodies, relying on intensity over technical skill–Nirvana’s musical purpose is to be as different from Guns ‘n’ Roses as possible, while still occupying the heavy-rock format. You’d think such an attitude would only get you so far, but then a record like Nevermind comes along.
**Geeky Observation Warning**-The Chord Changes in the Verses of “In Bloom”
You all know “In Bloom” (“He’s the one who likes/All our pretty songs…”). Well, I’ve always wondered about the chord changes in its verse sections (“Sell the kids for food/Weather changes moods…”). On the front end, it’s a fairly standard, kind of bleak hard rock progression (For those of you in the know: B flat to F sharp to E flat). Then it does something strange. It goes to B, then to A, before it goes back to the B flat that started the progression.
Big deal, right? Well, it kind of is. Going to these two chords (to be technical, a diminished first and a major seventh) before going back to the B flat (first) is actually really strange. I’ve never heard, or at least noticed, it in any other song.
I’ve been trying to come up with a metaphor that best explains this feat to non-theory people, and this is the closest I can come: Say you’re standing in a barrel and you want to get out of it. How would you go about it? You’d probably boost yourself out with your hands and then hop down. You might swing one leg over, then the other. You might even push the barrel over and crawl out. What you wouldn’t do is spring flat-footed straight up and land with both of your feet on the barrel’s lip. If you did that, you’d probably fall, or you wouldn’t get both of your feet down at the same time, sending the barrel toppling over. That’s a bit what going to B, then A before going back to the B flat is like, a weird kind of balancing act that probably only works because the two chords are played in succession, the weirdness of one balancing out the weirdness of the other and keeping the song from toppling over.
Anyway, hardly earth-shattering, but it is ground-breaking as heavy rock goes. Nevermind, with its competent if underwhelming axeslingers operating from a simple, anti-metal aesthetic, doesn’t offer much in the way of musical surprises, but the band manages to come up with a unique element here.
Okay, we all know Nevermind is not the Holy Grail of solo guitar playing, and I’ll spare you (and me) any in-depth analysis of Cobain’s solo chops. Once again, Cobain is working within a punk/anti-metal aesthetic that shuns all that crap, favoring solos that mimic the melody of the lyrics, or going with something chaotic, noise-ridden or purposefully dissonant. It’s a guitar style I happen to like, but I can’t claim the guitar solos on Nevermind are “better” than those on Appetite. They’re different, and they serve the songs’ melodies and themes, and that’s all I dare ask of them.
I believe that the sound of a singer’s voice, that undefinable way a singer evokes one mood from one person and another from another, is vital. If a singer’s voice doesn’t speak to you, nothing else–not even a great song–is going to save it. I feel this way about so many singers. Stevie Wonders could sing the fine print from my car insurance policy and I’d love it. Celine Dion could sing Bob Dylan’s greatest hits and I’d turn it off somewhere between “Once upon a time” and “You dressed so fine.”
Central to the exchange is the feeling that we believe the singer. There’s something about the timbre of the voice, or the way he phrases his words, or shapes his melodies, that we inherently trust, or don’t. He charms us, and once this contract of good faith is signed with the listener, the singer gets a lot of leeway. He can sing nonsensical words, or just scream, and that’s all okay. Hell, sometimes it’s preferable. You’d have a beer with this singer, loan your car to this singer, even let him marry your daughter…okay, maybe your niece.
Cobain’s voice is one I believe and trust. It’s a young but genuinely world-weary voice. It suggests someone who’s tough, in his way, and who isn’t going to let someone bigger and more narcissistic than him–like, say, Axl Rose–push him around. He’s clearly in pain, as all of us are at times, and we trust him for evoking that pain so clearly and lucidly, giving both his and ours dignity. He’s brave, putting it all out there where someone could easily take shots at him for it. Despite the elusiveness of explaining the appeal of Cobain’s–or anyone’s–voice, I give him a thumbs-up in this department, which is really more like giving a thumbs-up to his soul.
Lyrics, Phrasing and Melody
There is no reason why a songwriter should have to stand by his words as separate entities from his singing of them–we listen to songs, we don’t read them. Cobain, as evidenced in his less evolved work on other albums, was clearly focused first and foremost on the way his words sounded, and often seemed only secondarily concerned with what they meant. The real truth, for a songwriter like Cobain, lies in the feelings his singing evokes in an instinctual, non-literary way. Cobain didn’t stress about lyrics in much of his work, and considering the wonder of Nevermind, I don’t know why we should either.
I’ve always pictured Cobain grunting and groaning his way through the melodies of his songs until he comes up with lyrics he likes. (I have to believe Axl is more deliberate with his songs’ thematic choices. “Let’s write a song about my daughter,” or “I think I’ll write a song about when I first came to L.A.” Nothing wrong with that, but it engages Axl’s literal mind too much, making his lyrics–when they miss–forced and trite.) This style of “grunt until it means something” might sound like I’m paying Cobain short shrift, but I really believe it’s the best course for the writer of heavy rock. Cobain instinctually knows the importance of the way his voice sounds, especially when his words mean little. It makes those times when he hits on genuine insight all the more impactful.
What might best illustrate this point are the first lines of the chorus of “Smells like Teen Spirit”: “With the lights out/It’s less dangerous.” Does anybody out there want to take a guess at what Cobain means by those lines? I could take stab at it: something to do with it being easier to take a chance or to get away with something when the “lights are out,” or when nobody’s looking. It’s not a bad sentiment, but nothing compared to the earth-shattering next one: “Here we are now/Entertain us.” That is what Cobain’s writing style allows him to do. He can get by with something vague, almost nonsensical, letting his voice and melody do the heavy lifting, and then drop the lyrical bomb on you when he happens upon it. His songs fluctuate, sometimes from line to line, between meaning nothing and meaning everything. Such a style lends itself perfectly to hard rock, where the lyrics aren’t the most important thing going on, and also conveys the relationship between anger and ambivalence that is Nevermind’s hallmark.
Having said all that, below are some examples on Nevermind where I think Cobain separates himself as a songwriter from the rest of the pack.
“Smells like Teen Spirit”-No line better nails my generation than “Here we are now/Entertain us.” Blunt, demandingly funny, self-indicting, I always imagine it’s Kurt’s take on the people staring at him from the front row, their arms crossed, watching him play. As with seemingly all of Cobain’s lyrics, there’s a dual sense of both sympathizing with and making fun of those he writes about and, often, himself.
“In Bloom”-I’ve heard it implied that Kurt is looking down on the character he sings about in this song (“He’s the one/Who likes all our pretty songs/and he likes to sing along/And he likes to shoot his gun/But he don’t know what it means”). I’ve always heard that “Don’t know what it means” as more sympathetic toward the one who can’t understand the song. It both is and isn’t, of course, and that duality is where Cobain’s lyrics derive much of their strength. But I think Cobain has more pathos for his subject here than others, and maybe Cobain himself, realize.
“Come as you Are”-First of all, what a melody. John Lennon would’ve heard this one and said, “Blimey, that’s good.”
I’ve always loved the lyrical series “As a trend/As a friend/As an old memory.” Cobain was so good at grouping seemingly disparate thing together in a way that evoked patterns that feel genuine, mimicking the way one feels emotion or experiences reality. Trends and friends and memories are all right next to each other, almost like they’re coming to narrator’s mind in succession, like we’re taking a tour of his thoughts. For me, the only other songwriter in the world who can so subtly create these patterns of meaning is Brent Babb, who is the songwriter in the Tempe, Arizona band Dead Hot Workshop. I think Babb is the best, most complex and rich, hard rock songwriter of his generation, but Cobain ranks right behind him, particularly with these types of associations.
“Breed”-The “I don’t care” song. Listen to the way Cobain phrases this tune, in particular the way he hits that fifth “care” in this series. It’s sort of this dramatic pause that almost negates the demanding “I don’t care”s that come before it. Looked at this way, the verse goes from a snotty declaration (“I don’t care”) to the more general, thoughtful and ruminative “care,” and that combination seems to perfectly reflect the pattern of emotions we associate with anger. When we get angry, we shout things like “I don’t care.” Then as the anger melts away, we get more contemplative; we might start to regret the anger, or think more contemplatively about it. Either consciously or unconsciously, Cobain combines these related emotions in a seamless way that makes the listener recognize, maybe for the first time, the relationship between them.
“Lithium”-The “I’m so happy” song. My favorite part is the wonderful series of lines in the bridge (“I like it/I’m not gonna crack”). Again, Cobain is expertly putting together things that ostensibly don’t go together, combining declarations of the simple and positive (“I like it,” “I love it,” etc.) with a repeating statement of mental stability, or lack thereof (“I’m not gonna crack”). This is one Axl should give a listen if he’d like to learn how to render “craziness.” Cobain isn’t telling us how crazy is; he’s showing us how a crazy mind works, going straight from benign and generally positive declarations to a seemingly wishful declaration of his own sanity. That lithium sure came in handy, eh?
“Polly”-The “Polly wants a cracker/Think I should get off her first” song. Again with Cobain’s phrasing. The chorus has a series of three-syllable lines (“Isn’t me/Haven’t seen/Let me clip/Dirty wings”), which are followed by the five-syllable “Let me take a ride.” It’s a subtle shifting of phrasing–just like that fifth “care” in “Breed”–that really strikes me as effective. It reminds me of the way a poet would alter his rhyming scheme in one line to shake up a poem that had gotten too sing-song-y. Imagine this chorus without the line “Let me take a ride.” Still pretty, but by the eighth time Cobain hits a three-syllable line, you’re ready to hit the skip button.
“Territorial Pissings”-The “Gotta find a way” song. I admit that Cobain’s lyrics and melodies in this song aren’t his most distinguished, but the tune is hardly “filler,” as Klosterman would surely like to brand it. The most significant part of the song comes at the end, when Cobain repeats the chorus (“Gotta find a way, a better way, a better way”) until his voice gives out, singing the entire last series of lines in a struggling, squeaky falsetto. Leaving this damaged, desperate portion of singing in the final mix is a wonderful decision by Cobain and/or producer Butch Vig. How could Cobain better render someone at the end of his rope, someone who desperately needs to “find a better way”? This is an instance where Cobain uses every tool at his disposal to render the content of his lyrics. (Imagine what Axl would’ve done if, late one night in the studio, he’d cut a similar take. I’m guessing the assistant engineer had better find the delete button pretty quick.) This moment is a disarming look at Cobain, who isn’t afraid of being seen at his most vulnerable, a quality we associate with great songwriters like, for example, John Lennon.
“Drain You”-The “One baby to another said/I’m lucky to meet you” song. For me, the melody alone saves this tune from Klosterman’s filler status. I admit to never having given the lyrics a second thought before writing this piece, but the theme of what I’ll call “medical procedures as a way of sharing intimacy” are pretty striking. Medical procedures are quite intimate (and if you don’t know what I mean, I hope you never do).
“Lounge Act”-Again, melody rules. And Cobain never pulls us out of the spell with a single over-reaching lyric.
“Stay Away”-The “monkey see, monkey do” song. I’ve always loved the “I don’t know why” in the verses, mimicked by squealing the guitar, and to me the song is relevant for that alone. Admittedly, “Stay Away” is probably not a hard rock classic, but after tracks 1 through 9, does it really need to be?
“On a Plain”-The “I’m on a plain/I can’t complain” song. Again, lovely melody, and I’ve always thought the background vocals on the line “Love myself better than you” sounded like Steven Tyler. It’s Nevermind‘s most pop-metal song. Thank goodness Geffen Records didn’t make it a single–sort of a follow-up to “Hate Everything about You” by Ugly Kid Joe–or rock history might have gotten sorely fucked up.
“Something in the Way”-This droopy closer was never one of my favs, but I admit a fondness for that “Yeah” in the chorus.
So, what have we learned?
We’ve learned that, despite Klosterman’s assertion that Nevermind is loaded with filler, I sure as hell can’t find it.
We’ve learned that, despite Almond’s offense at having Cobain mentioned in the same sentence as John Lennon, the two share, at minimum, a penchant for the irresistibly hooky melody and a willingness to do whatever it takes vocally to make a song go.
We’ve learned how weird chord changes can be like jumping flat-footed out of a barrel and balancing on its lip.
We’ve learned that GnR as a band is probably more innovative than Nirvana, but Nevermind through its production is probably more innovative than Appetite.
We’ve learned that Axl almost can’t help but allow his vocals to get in the way of the song, and that Cobain almost can’t make his vocals get in the way of the song.
We’ve learned that Axl’s voice is as noteworthy as Cobain’s soul.
And we’ve learned that, once and for all, Nevermind trumps Appetite for Destruction. Come on, it just does.
For those of you who made it through all 6,500 words of this three-part series, thank you for coming along. I hope it was as fun to read as it was to write. Up next, Nothing’s Shocking versus Shout at the Devil! (Just kidding.)
P.S. Is anyone interested in learning to write like this? Here’s your chance. I’m teaching the never-before-ventured online Rock and Roll Writing course at the Basement Writing Workshop. Get your butt-less chaps ready. Class starts on October 4th.