Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mopping Up Culture Vomit: Is this the Nirvana everybody loved?

I alluded to my fevered year-end music binge in the most recent Writers' Jukebox. Even if I don't actually keep up with new music year-round (my favorite albums of 2009 were The Blueprint and My Aim is True), I like being apprised of new shit that's blowin' up everybody's spot.

So I was mildly annoyed to find two albums by old-ass artists sitting atop Metacritic's list of the best-rated albums of 2009. That's not to say they're by undeserving artists (Leonard Cohen and Nirvana are un-scoff-at-able), but they don't make me feel very "hip" or "with-it."

But I put aside my desire to feel up-to-date (which ironically makes me sound old as balls) and dove into these two new albums by old artists. My reaction to the Leonard Cohen was unsurprising: he still ain't my cup of tea. But my reaction to this new Nirvana live record (their oft-bootlegged set at the 1992 Reading Music Festival) wasn't what I expected, considering the universal critical acclaim heaped on the thing.

"This," I thought, "is not the Nirvana I fell in love with. And this certainly isn't the Nirvana the American public fell in love with."

So what made them so fucking gigantic?

The Rolling Stone's of the world like to reckon Nevermind as the death of pop. They like to imagine Kurt Cobain hitting Paula Abdul (who actually had a huge hit in 1988) the face with a Fender Jaguar. I also like to imagine that.

But the Nirvana that came to power in 1991 was, in its own way, just as studio-engineered as the pre-grunge pop that it killed.

Nevermind is an eminently listenable record, after all. It's produced by Butch Vig (that dude from Garbage?), and it's major-label rock all the way. Cobain even went so far as to call Nevermind more of "a Mötley Crüe record than it is a punk rock record."

The Nirvana of Nevermind, however, was not a punk rock band. And despite what the band said later, I don't think they wanted to be. After all, they shopped their demo to major labels, they picked Butch Vig after Geffen offered them a deal, and they chose Slayer-producer Andy Wallace (who, tellingly, also produced the Run-DMC version of "Walk this Way") to mix the record.

There's a valid argument to be made that Nirvana wanted to be a pop band. Kurt Cobain wrote great pop songs, and the band wanted to make a great pop record.

But Kurt Cobain didn't write Milli Vanilli tunes; Live at Reading proves that much. This guy was angry and disillusioned and everything else that makes you want to hug/punch goth kids. Live, accordingly, is punk rock as shit.

And that's the tension that inspired millions of American teens to jump on the grunge bandwagon: this was confrontational music philosophically, but it was super-accessible musically. If Nirvana really wanted to be a Sub Pop band like Dinosaur Jr. or the Butthole Surfers, they could have made it happen.

Look at what happened to Nirvana when they tried to make a record that sounded as weird as the Pixies or as strung-out as the Meat Puppets or as scary as Big Black: they made In Utero. Suddenly feeling super bourgeois, the band hires irascible douchebag Steve Albini to produce the follow-up to Nevermind. And they recorded a few SST-style raw-as-fuck tunes ("Serve the Servants", "Scentless Apprentice") that sounded a lot like everything else Steve Albini produced.

Maybe it's just me, but those aren't the songs I remember particularly from In Utero. I'll take "Pennyroyal Tea" or "Dumb" any day because the band's melodic sensibilities outweigh any macho production bullshit from Albini.

Even the band was dissatisfied. They didn't like the way the record sounded, and they eventually hired Scott Litt (R.E.M. and a bunch of post-grunge bands that sounded like Nirvana but kinda blew) to remix the two singles ("Heart-Shaped Box" and "All Apologies"). Nirvana kinda wanted to sound raw-as-fuck, but their pop side won out in the end.

And that's the Nirvana that I love: they wanted to be small, but they were just too damn big. It's that conflict that made Nirvana so great, and it's that conflict that probably drove Kurt Cobain to kill himself. People like to speculate about what Nirvana would look like if they were still around, but it's hard to imagine Nirvana being the same band if they hadn't ended they way they did.

So enjoy Live at Reading. It's a fascinating historical document and all that jazz. But appreciate that it's only one side of the coin.