Monday, June 7, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob: Week 62 - Nirvana

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

Nirvana is one of those bands that was so omnipresent in the early nineties that even I, a young nerd who actively shunned popular music, was pretty familiar with their repertoire. And I feel that so much has been written on the trio that saying anything else on the subject is also like simply crossing certain Nirvana-related phrases off of a checklist. Aberdeen - check. Courtney Love - check. Influenced by the Pixies - check. Et cetera.

Nirvana is a Big Fucking Deal in the world of popular music, and because I grew up during the period of time in which they were a Really Big Fucking Deal, it's almost hard for me to approach this music from a critical perspective. Nirvana's music isn't good or bad - for me, it has always just simply been.

So whenever I listened to a Nirvana album this week, it felt like a slice of the early nineties that had been perfectly preserved for the past 17 years. It's a portrait of a specific kind of music from a specific time that, for whatever reason, captivated the musical world. I think music should have personal significance, but for me it was difficult because I associate Nirvana's stuff as being the ubiquitous soundtrack of grade school. Hell, I had friends in high school who were still swapping The-Government-Killed-Kurt-Cobain stories nearly ten years after he died.

So if I wasn't particularly captivated by Nirvana this week, it's partially because the constant presence of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" over the last nineteen years of my life has numbed the impact. Which is not to say that's it's not a great song - it is - but that it's hard for me to view the song as something relatable. Instead, it's been enshrined in the pantheon of Overplayed Songs as an icon. A lot of classic rock is in a similar boat, but with that at least I have the advantage of not being alive when it premiered, which limited my exposure somewhat. Not so with Nirvana, which is perhaps the last band to have such a widespread and pervasive impact.



MY LISTENING: I listened to Nevermind (1991) every day this week, as well as In Utero(1993) three times, MTV Unplugged in New York (1994) twice and Bleach (1989) once.

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Quite a bit, albeit in piecemeal fashion. Nevermind was a CD constantly passed back and forth in middle and high school, and for a few hours one lazy afternoon in 10th grade, I drummed in a band that put together a recognizable cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit". I'm traveling this week, and I chose an act I already had some familiarly with in hopes that it would be easier for me to do a write-up. Instead, the opposite happened - because I already came to this week with a bit of Nirvana knowledge, I couldn't just do the standard "Wow, this sounds neat and different" spiel - I had to consider what the band was all about and really delve into the music.


I first sat down and gave a concentrated listening to Nevermind sometime back in 2008, and I wasn't very impressed. The first three songs - "Smells Like Teen Spirit", "In Bloom," and "Come As You Are" - are all very good, but I thought the album was frontloaded and the second half just wasn't up to snuff. So I was surprised this week when I gave Nevermind another spin and found myself enjoying the whole thing. Even less frequented tracks like the rocking "On A Plain" and the unsettling "Something in the Way" are worth a listen. I still wouldn't put Nevermind in my top albums of all time, but my opinion of it went up considerably, and with it my opinion on Kurt Cobain's songwriting skills - "Territorial Pissings" is really the only stinker on the entire album.

What I found myself appreciating, though, is those softer songs like "Something in the Way." In Utero took it a step further and offered more of those kinds of ballad-esque tracks - "Heart-shaped Box" and "All Apologies" are the two most famous, but "Dumb" is equally as good. Cobain can not only write soft, eerie songs about alienation, he can really emote them damn well when he sings. "Rape Me" is controversial enough just from the title, but Cobain manages to infuse the track with a good deal of sadness and mourning.

This is building up to the fact that I really liked Nirvana's acoustic album MTV Unplugged in New York, which I think shows a side of the band that often gets lost in all the conversations about grunge and the alternative revolution. But when you strip away all the grime and scuzz of Nirvana's music, there's some beautiful songs underneath, and a band that can perform them very well. And Unplugged in New York is beautiful - a word that doesn't get associated with Nirvana very often. The good songs - "Come As You Are" and "All Apologies" - are better, and even the previously unmemorable songs like "Polly" are good.

Finally though Cobain gets a lot of the credit, I'd be amiss not to mention the effect of Dave Grohl's drumming. Listen to a song like "In Bloom" - Cobain may have been able to write this loud/soft masterpieces, but it's impressive to find a drummer who can handle both dynamic levels with equal finesse.


The louder and grungier that Nirvana got, the less I liked them. "Territorial Pissings" is easily the weakest track on Nevermind, as it descends into manic shrieking and uninteresting noise. "Tourette's" occupies a similar role on In Utero, but even the milder "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle" loses me in the levels of fuzz.

I just find that kind of music uninteresting, I suppose, and it's certainly not fun for me to listen to for extended periods of time. Like I said above, it's very evocative of a certain time and place in the history of popular music, but I couldn't connect with it on any gut level.

But if Nevermind and In Utero are products of a certain era, Bleach is even less transcendent and more tied to the early Seattle grunge scene. I listened to that album once, and once was enough. It gets a lot of press as Nirvana's first album and has enjoyed some retroactive acclaim, but the softer ballads that I like the most in Nirvana are completely absent here. Instead, there's simply noisy songs like "Negative Creep," and the individual tracks sound similar enough that they blend into each other in a way that they never do on the later albums.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: Like the best artists, death and break-up hasn't stopped Nirvana from releasing more albums. There's still From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (1996) and last year's Live at Reading (2009) to go through. Beyond that, I suppose I should venture into the Foo Fighters' discography, as Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl is the driving force behind that band.

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

I had to pick this one. You know that, right? I had to.

BEST SONG YOU HAVEN'T HEARD: "All Apologies" (The Unplugged version)

NEXT ARTIST: I'm taking next week off, but I'll be back in two weeks with Tears for Fears.