7 Random Thoughts on Nirvana

17Apr12

I didn’t mean for this to coincide with the anniversary of Cobain’s suicide. I’ve just been listening and re-listening to the albums for the first time in a while. Nevertheless, here it goes:

1.) “Nevermind” is better than “In Utero,”and the reason for that is simple numbers. I’m one of those people who actually rate the songs in my iPod (which, as you know, is super important), and when you compare the grades, “Nevermind” has the song-by-song edge. I may be grading this based on nostalgia, but only a little bit. It’s not even really my nostalgia. I wasn’t a first responder to the Nirvana tidal wave, so any nostalgia I feel has one foot in a fantasy. I’m imagining what I want to remember my high school years to be like. With that being said, the album holds up remarkably well, even with a slew of songs starting with the same kind of bass intro (more on that in a bit). Just depressing enough to be exciting, just exciting enough to be fun. Besides…

2.) The fact that I believe “Nevermind” is better would make simultaneously Cobain like me and hate me. Follow this circular logic: “Nevermind” was a huge hit, and that made Cobain mad, because he didn’t like that jocks and homophobes were enjoying his music. So he set out to make a deliberately off-putting album with “In Utero.” And it worked. So Cobain would like me because I validate his theory. Then he’d hate me for the exact same reasons, because that’s what he did.

3.) The Shift In Power. Not that Nirvana was ever an evenly democratic group, but I would hypothesize that you can feel the power of the band shifting from being more of a democracy on “Nevermind” to more of a monarchy on “In Utero” just by listening to the opening moments of the song. Basically the songs on “Nevermind” vary in their instrumentation (sometimes it’s guitar first, sometimes it’s bass first, sometimes it’s drums first… and sometimes it’s all three) because Novoselic and Grohl had more of a personal stake in the band. But on “In Utero,” almost every song starts with guitar, with the other instruments holding back their entrance until their leader tells them. This mixed with the typical verse-chorus-verse song structure Nirvana normally applies gives the album another feeling of monotony. However…

4.) “In Utero” has some super great parts. When the 5-star songs hit, they hit big. “Pennyroyal Tea” has never been my cup from the “Unplugged” album, but hearing it again at full volume proves what a jam it is. “Utero” remains interestingly produced, and it makes me want to pitch a re-mix idea to have Steve Albini re-tool “Nevermind,” if Cobain really thought that one was too commercial.  And the album’s overall effect feels a bit more unified than its predecessor. It was the first Nirvana album I ever bought, and I’ve probably listened to it more all the way through than their others. This might have more to do with Cobain’s ghost hanging over ever guitar strum, but you can’t help that.  And on that note…

5.) “MTV Unplugged: Live In New York” Is Virtually Peerless. As far as live albums go. It seems the problem with most live albums is that they don’t build, ebb and flow like a polished studio album can. Not so with this one. The set list feels particularly designed to move from one song to the other, and free from the constraints (if that’s the right word) of original material, the use of cover songs expands the palette even further. Instrumentation feels deliberate, the transition from electric to acoustic feels more like a solved problem than just “quieter.” Things feel intimate, and within the frozen context that surrounds the performance, that intimacy creates tension.

6.) Suicide Is Weird. I’ve been thinking about the fascination I have (and I’m sure others do, too) with post-mortem examinations of bands. I mostly got into Nirvana after Cobain’s death, and I believe the benefit (if you can call it that) I had is that I could see the music as a finished product. Same goes with Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and the like. Maybe this is more telling of the times we live in, where beloved movies get remade every day and 3-D versions of other movies get released to great acclaim. Few things are really permanent or certain, and when you find something that is permanent — such as an artist’s death — it gives their work focus.

7.) How I Heard. That little bit I mentioned about not being a Nirvana fan until after Cobain’s death? It’s true, but I did know who he was, and I’ll never forget how I found how he killed himself. My mom woke me up for school to tell me. I think I said, “OK,” to which I think she said, “I just thought, you know… it might be important to you.” And I probably said something like, “Not really.” I think she was scared that Cobain was important to me in the way he was to so many fans at that time, and that I would be depressed. What’s even weirder is that it happened on Mom’s birthday, and I’m almost 100% positive that I didn’t say “Happy Birthday” during our exchange. If I were writing the script of that moment, it would have been the first thing out of my mouth, thereby contrasting against the sad news to come.

ETA: Turns out, I’m not a huge jerk at all. As you may recall, Cobain shot himself on April 5 (my mother’s birthday), but his body wasn’t discovered three days later on April 8 (not my mother’s birthday). And since I grew up in a very small city during pre-internet days, it’s possible that we didn’t get word until the 9th.

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