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Nirvana – [Box Set]

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Friday, 14 October 2011

Sometimes the fact that a change is coming to the makeup of pop culture isn't perfectly evident or apparent until the scales become unbalanced and everything is just suddenly different. In moments like that, everyone is simply left to run, catch up and adjust, or simply be left behind to accept that the times have changed and they are simply no longer theirs. Many such events can be found littered through the history of pop music, but none in recent years have been so tremendous as that which happened on September 24, 1991 – the day Nirvana released Nevermind and appeared on the pop radar like an explosion. When the album hit, the response from the record-buying public was staggering; DGC (the label to which Nirvana had signed after the release of Bleach) appeared as though it had been caught with its pants down as Nevermind began flying off of record store shelves and the conservative initial pressing of 81,000 copies (46,000 of which were to be distributed domestically, with the remainder being shipped to the United Kingdom) was quickly exhausted, leaving retailers to wait for days (and longer – there are stories of record stores taking names for waiting lists) for more copies to be pressed and shipped. Other projects were put on the back burner while the label rushed to try and keep up and, even by the time it did, interest had only increased; by January of 1992 (when Nevermind secured the Number One spot on the Billboard chart) Nevermind was selling an estimated three hundred thousand copies per week, worldwide. The album was certified platinum less than two months after its release.

The sort of shift that Nevermind represented was without precedent. While other alternative rock and grunge bands like Jane's Addiction, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains and Mudhoney had all seen some success in both the underground and mainstream arenas by then, those accomplishments paled in comparison to the scale and speed at which Nirvana consumed popular attention. Almost from the day of Nevermind's release, Nirvana was established as the biggest and brightest new star in the sky (although it would take a little time for the money to start rolling in – because of the album's release date and how labels schedule their royalty check payouts, Nirvana didn't really start making money until early 1992 and because of the rate at which the band's popularity grew, it was still possible to see them play a seven or eight hundred-seat venue when they had a gold record).

So was Nevermind really that big a deal? It certainly was – never before had an album so seamlessly merged underground affinities and musings with mainstream pop forms in such a way that the music was perfectly accessible to everyone, but also expressed themes never previously presented to a pop audience, More than any other album of the time, Nevermind bridged the gap between mainstream and underground music – playing to both sides with equal amounts of heart and sincerity. That sincerity is expressed from the moment a perfectly flat, unaffected (and untouched by production effect, for that matter) four-chord lick opens “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – unlike other rock anthems which relied on godly riffs and histrionics (see “Sweet Child Of Mine,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Crazy Train” or any such others) to hook in a listener's mind and make them memorable, “Teen Spirit” comes on perfectly simple and bluntly. There's no way to didactically pull it apart or weave between complex structures and arrangements because there are none; that lick stands defiantly and says (to paraphrase the song's own lyrics) “Here we are.” A listener's adrenaline levels will begin to rise at that, but then Dave Grohl's drums sound the charge, that simple lick grows teeth as it becomes distorted and all hell just breaks loose.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a truly incredible and surprising turn away from the mainstream rock values of the day and remains so, even years later. Other than ignoring the structures that other rock bands of the day favored (big, spectacular riffs, instrumental heroics and a level of anthemia which rendered it impossible for a kid to faithfully recreate a song in his bedroom), there is no hint of the crotch-grabbing that even other bands from Seattle (like Soundgarden – who may have been dismissing such conduct with “Big Dumb Sex” but also embraced it, utilizing chops descended from Motley Crüe – and Alice In Chains, who started out as a glam band) were guilty of here. Nirvana's approach is, if anything, more understated; lines like “Load up on guns, bring your friends” and “Our little group has always been and always will until the end” seem ominous and foreboding, but they're also brought down to earth and made universal when coupled as they are with lines like “It's fun to lose and to pretend” and “I'm worse at what I do best and for this gift I feel blessed.” In such pairings, the sentiments seem to ring like heartfelt candor than aggressive posturing. With that in mind, it only makes sense that the song's famous “anti-solo” would simply mirror the verse vocal melody too. The closer one looks, it becomes clear that nothing about “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was really meant to stand out and that's why (at least in part) it got over so well with audiences – it was a really good song that some of the younger members of Generation X gravitated to because even they could have written it. That's also why Cobain was embraced so well by fans; he didn't present himself or his music like another untouchable rock star, he came off like a peer.

After “Teen Spirit,” Nirvana gently pushes in a little further with the poppy “In Bloom” but, again, nothing is exactly as it seems there either. Taking the record as a whole, “In Bloom” is undoubtedly the biggest pop song on Nevermind on the surface, but digging into it reveals how subversive the song actually is. Again, like “Teen Spirit,” “In Bloom” has an undeniably poppy bent as the four-chord hook leads the song off and kicks it into gear, and the saccharine drips from its vocal melody – but even starting to pay attention to the lyrical content reaffirms the subversive streak in Nirvana. Lyrically, “In Bloom” quickly reveals itself to be a great punk song dressed in pop clothing as lines like “Sell the kids for food” and “Nature is a whore” gently imply, but the chorus is where the sarcasm (and veiled commentary on both youth culture and its relationship to the sort of pop that the song is meant to represent) strikes through plainly:

“He's the one who likes all our pretty songs
and he likes to sing along
and he likes to shoot his gun [although it sounds like “And he likes the shirt he's got” –ed]
but he don't know what it means
knows not what it means”

How much fun would it be for a band to have those lines screamed back at them live? What a fantastic joke – “In Bloom” is the perfect kind of pop song and the perfect punk song; it's caustic and damning, but wonderfully catchy and memorable all at once before fading into the watery relief of “Come As You Are.”

Not surprisingly, Nevermind's first three songs were serviced as singles and really helped to set the impressions of the record in the minds of both the media and public as a new kind of aggressive pop (call it “grunge” – the media of the day certainly did) but, decades after the mania has subsided, it's possible to see that the undercurrents and understated sounds say more about the band, about Kurt Cobain's songwriting and about how Nirvana carefully made a pop landscape of which institutions like Michael Jackson were still very much a part not just accept punk, but revere it.

First, the inspirations:

Kurt Cobain would eventually confess in interviews that, in addition to punk, he was a big fan of what would eventually become termed “underground” or “indie” rock as well as The Beatles. He would also go on to confess that, while writing “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” he was trying to rip off The Pixies (the similarities between “Teen Spirit” and “Where Is My Mind” are easy enough to find), but there are other sounds on Nevermind which echo other artists whom it would later be established were essential to the foundation of Nirvana as well. In “On A Plain” for example, the melody comes pretty close to complimenting The Meat Puppets' “Oh, Me,” while the title lyric and melody of “Something In The Way” seems to answer The Beatles' song “Something” [check it out here ]. Are these similarities a coincidence? Maybe, but it's equally possible that Cobain was inspired by those aforementioned sources, and they filtered into the results on the album; there's nothing wrong with or fraudulent about that, it's just a plausible assumption when one is trying to ascertain what the creative process that went into one of the greatest albums of the 1990s was.

Beyond those first three songs, digging into Nevermind means looking closely at the punk aspects of the album as well. There's no arguing that “Teen Spirit,” “In Bloom” and “Come As You Are” are pop songs at heart and the foundation for Nevermind's status as a pop album, but things immediately get more diverse as the album continues. Right on the heels of “Come As You Are,” “Breed” pounds the idea that Nirvana's mainstream debut is a pure pop document to dust effortlessly as Krist Novoselic's bass line (for which he tuned down a step and a half to D Flat in order to make the low end that much larger) punches listeners in the face while Cobain refines the punk and hardcore chops he exposed on “Negative Creep” and “Blew” from Bleach into a harder, more focused and concise rage. Elsewhere, “Territorial Pissings” recalls the glory days of SST hardcore institutions like Black Flag and “Lounge Act” grafts some fatigued new-wave conventions onto the same sort of aggressive framework to resuscitate them and make them sound fresh too. All these sounds are recognizable here, but they're also blended with a plainly stated pop sensibility to arrive at a sound which had never really come through for any other band before – not in pop, rock or punk, nor on any of Nirvana's previous recordings. Nevermind was a tremendous achievement for Nirvana in that regard, and represented a vital new voice in rock which would end up wiping the slate clean of the cock rock which was dominating both the charts and airwaves at the time completely; it sounds trite, but Nevermind signaled the dawn of a new age where rock was ostensibly allowed to start all over again.

Twenty years after its release, Nevermind still holds a unique and celebrated position in the rock canon but, unlike so many other albums in the same position, the mythos surrounding parts of Nirvana's major label debut and the commentary that members of the band have offered in the years since its release continue to spark questions and debate. For example, Kurt Cobain regularly called Nevermind a “candy rock” record and lamented the slickness of Butch Vig's production on several occasions. In answer to such commentary and to put some of the questions that fans have had about it to rest, the Super Deluxe reissue of Nevermind includes both the Smart Sessions demos that Nirvana did with Vig in Wisconsin (which had been previously available on bootlegs, but some songs also turned up in 2004 on Nirvana's With The Lights Out box set) as well as the Devonshire mixes that Vig made for the band members to hear how they were shaping up (which have never been available before). As it turns out, these inclusions illustrate that the “slickness” Cobain lamented was not the result of Vig's work – it was actually a byproduct of Andy Wallace's efforts [Wallace's previous credits included work with Slayer, The Cult and Sepultura at that point –ed] – the producer who was contracted to mix the album after sessions on it had wrapped.

It is worth pointing out that the changes Wallace made to Nevermind were small on an individual level, but fans will be able to point them out immediately and understand where the “slickness” complaints made by Cobain were actually coming from. The Devonshire mixes done by Vig are certainly more raw than the results fans have known on Nevermind for twenty years; on a comparative level, the mixes which originally appeared on the album as fans know it are far more even than those from the Devonshire mixes set. The differences aren't always a good thing (the mix of “Territorial Pissings” feels rough and incomplete because of the absence of one guitar part, and the bridge in “Drain You” comes off as really gooey and subdued), but some of the leaner mixes sound great. In “Breed,” for example, the menacing vibe of the song is accentuated by an even bigger bass presence in it while “Lounge Act” just growls with the benefit of grainier production and “Stay Away” seethes; seeming more personal with the lack of vocal doubling through the verses (that “I'd rather be dead than cool” line really punches through here, and sounds revolutionary) before the meltdown at the end of the song seems to come on just that much hotter. It might sound silly to off-handedly say that the Devonshire mixes will give better insight into Cobain's remarks about the album, but they do just that and will simultaneously settle a lot of arguments among fans as well as give more fuel to the debates.

For long-time fans, the Devonshire mixes alone will be worth the surprisingly asking price of the Super Deluxe reissue of Nevermind, but of equal value are the inclusions of all the B-sides from the Nevermind singles (most notably “Curmudgeon” and “Even In His Youth”) and the concert included here, captured on October 31, 1991, at the Paramount Theater in Seattle.

Those who were fans of Nirvana at the time the band was a performing band (read: those who caught a show – not those who are only acquainted with the DVDs and videos, which have been released since the break-up of the band) are aware that, as good as they could be live, they could also have tremendous difficulties with their sound onstage (Professional Sound Magazine likened the sound at one of the band's shows in Toronto to a pummeling meltdown), due in part to the fact that they often employed substandard equipment. The show at the Paramount suffered no such problems however, and fans will be thrilled at the experience they get from the complete show included on the Super Deluxe Edition of Nevermind. Here, listeners get a quintessential set list from the time period complete with a full performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (the show happened before the band got sick of playing the song), “School,” “Breed,” “On A Plain” and even an embryonic version of “Rape Me” – all well with perfectly clear sound. Getting to hear a Nirvana concert of this vintage with this kind of clarity is a special treat in itself but, even better, the set list leaves almost nothing to be desired; the fact that many of the great early cuts in the band's catalogue are here is a gift made all the better by the fact that the band is in very fine form.

Between the inclusion of the Paramount show, the Smart Sessions demos, the Devonshire mixes, the Nevermind B-sides, an enormous book of photos and a remastered rendering of the album, it can only be said that this Super Deluxe Edition really does capture Nirvana accurately, faithfully and completely, and not just at the moment the going got great for the band, but also all of the reasons why. There is no angle not covered or played perfectly here; this is exactly the treatment that this band, this album and the fans of both deserve.

Artist:

www.nirvana.com/  
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Album:

The Super Deluxe Edition of Nevermind is out now in Canada, and comes out on October 24, 2011, in the United States. Depending upon your region, you can buy it here on Amazon.ca or pre-order it here on Amazon.com

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