This week, I’ve been listening to Nirvana’s 1991 album “Nevermind” for what I can learn as a songwriting musician. This album hit record stores and the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” started getting played on MTV when I was 14 years old. An adult gave me this album a few months after its release, because they decided they didn’t actually like it. When people call Kurt Cobain the “voice of a generation“, they’re talking about my generation. It’s a label that neither of us cared for. This album is credited with performing various miracles for the world of rock. All of this “blah blah blah” makes it difficult to appreciate the songs. So, I’ve tried this week to forget the myriad of words said about this album over the past 26 years and just listen.
Power barre chords cover this album from start to finish. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” starts the album with a strong example. The opening riff has become one of the most recognizable guitar riffs, which is amusing considering even Kurt Cobain commented on its similarity to the chorus of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” and The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie. That it’s already such a classic rock guitar riff is why it works so well. The song grabs you immediately and you know it’s going to rock.
These are guitar-centric songs written on guitar to be played on guitar. Most tracks are built around a single riff. The bass often bounces under the guitar, even in a head-bobbing early 1960s rock sort of way. While Nirvana was drawing on their alternative rock influences like Sonic Youth and the Pixies, they were also returning to early rock music. People say so much about Nirvana’s use of quieter parts for verses and louder parts for choruses. This is perhaps why the songs can be so repetitive without boring me like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” did. Even though it wasn’t a new concept, the influence was soon seen. Next year’s ep “Broken” by Nine Inch Nails blew me away by pushing this quiet-loud contrast to more obvious extremes.
Rhythmically, the guitar often gives space for the snare drum. This great technique shows up frequently in rock music. Basically, the snare drum will hit on the 2nd and 4th beat of the measure and the guitar riffs will have a brief rest to allow the snare to punch through, like in “In Bloom“. You can often hum the guitar riff and the click your tongue for the snare. For the most part, the use of rhythm is this album is straight-forward. An interesting variation though is in the chorus of my favorite track, “Lithium“, the rhythm accents the 1st beat and then an eight-note after the 3rd and 4th beat.
Kurt was an amazing vocalist. His voice at times cuts through as a raspy howl and at others coarse but mellow singing. It was an influence on me early on, even though I doubt I would’ve admitted it. I was particularly floored by his singing for their 1994 performance of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” for MTV’s Unplugged.
The lyrics are raw visceral documents of anger, confusion and disillusionment. They don’t tell stories or even have a meaning in a traditional sense. I can imagine him writing individual phrases and then combining them to form songs. One line will express some raw emotion and then the next line will balance that with a degree of sarcasm. The lyrics express, without romanticism, the difficulties of being an outsider teen in a way that many people experience in an isolated way. It’s no wonder this album took hold and remains important. It’s perfectly adolescent in a way that is summed up in the line “Oh well, whatever, nevermind.”