Welcome to my first album review, loyal reader! (Readers, plural? I won’t be that optimistic yet). I’m a serious sound junkie who loves living in the most creative musical period in all of history — but having been born in 1993 leaves me a little raw when it comes to catching up on 40 years of rock and 400 years of Western art music. Hence the concept behind “Aaron Appraises Ancient Albums;” every other week, I’ll listen to a record (well, set of mp3 files) released before my birth and try to present my feelings untainted by the band’s legacy or critical appeal.
For an album like Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” that’s a tricky task — Rolling Stone and Pitchfork both call it an all-time classic, and lead singer Kurt Cobain’s early death was more tragic than Mozart’s to most twentysomethings. Nirvana inspired everyone from Nickelback to Lana Del Rey in its seven-year existence and is the closest anyone has come to recreating the all-encompassing influence of the Beatles.
“Nevermind” mostly lives up to expectations. In their second full-length album, Nirvana play together like seasoned veterans, and while they’re no Radiohead, they have a gift for catchy basslines and well-timed sonic effects. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the biggest song of the 1990s, makes use of the first – SLTS is the only song I knew from the album before today, it wormed into my brain the first time I heard it, and if you stop by TD H sometime you might hear it echo down the stairs: Na-na-Na, na… NA-NA-NA, NA! Nowhere on “Nevermind” does Nirvana better apply their soft-loud verse-chorus structure, and I smile through five minutes of frenzied guitars and guttural yelping.
The yelping gets old. Cobain was a genius songwriter, but his voice is like the late Bob Dylan shouting into a food processor; even when he keeps things quiet, the scratchy whine never seems to meld with the music, and I wonder what another vocalist could have done with such well-crafted instrumental parts. Dave Grohl’s backup vocals are a relief when they appear in “Lithium” and “Lounge Act,” but Cobain only seems to hit his stride on “Teen Spirit” and the blistering “Territorial Pissings” (141 thrilling seconds, but 141 is enough). “Something In The Way”, the final track, gives Kurt a chance to rest his throat, and his resigned whisper meshes well enough with slow, sedate guitars that I’d have loved the song were the lyrics meaningful in any way.
“Nevermind”’s lyrics, originally Cobain’s private poetry, are sometimes intriguing but mostly too obscure to have any impact in the songs — the first, second or third time around, at least. Weird Al Yankovic famously mocked the garbled “Teen Spirit” with “Smells Like Nirvana,” but you can at least hear most of what Cobain has to say for the rest of the album. If you want to know what he means, I recommend reading one of several “Nevermind”-focused scholarly dissertations or the drawn-out arguments between aging punks on the forums of any lyrics website. Or you could simply sit back, fast-forward through a few dud tracks, and enjoy the fury of a band that unwittingly came to rule the world.
Rating: 7/10 Aaron’s Track Picks: “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Breed,” “Territorial Pissings”