Nevermind: 20th Anniversary Edition
In twenty years, Krist Novoselic’s short rendition of “Get Together” has lost none of its weirdness or pointed humor. The bassist yelps a few lines at the beginning of “Territorial Pissings,” opening side two of Nirvana’s Nevermind on an unexpected note (or several missed notes, actually). By 1991 Dino Valenti’s plea for peace was an artifact of the 1960s, and its hippie inclusivity sounded so naïve that it had lost any sense of dignified dissent it might have once held. On Nevermind, that unlikely chorus leads immediately into one of the band’s most tightly wound songs, making the implications very clear: After putting up with baby boomer sanctimony throughout the 1980s, punk was giving the finger to that generation in a way the old folks couldn’t grasp but the kids understood instinctively.
That sense of hostile irony may be one of the most underrated qualities on Nevermind, whose sly dismissals and cagey lyrics sound like an extension of Cobain’s scabrous guitars and Dave Grohl’s thundering drums. Irony was the watchword of the early ‘90s, designating a perspective routinely criticized as unsophisticated and nihilistic, yet Nirvana sound like that particular stance was all the world afforded them. The old poses – embodied in “Get Together” and Teen Spirit marketing – no longer applied. More to the point, they existed to be rebelled against. Even “Lithium” implies that mood-altering prescription drugs had replaced the mind-expanding psychedelics of the Woodstock generation.
Perhaps that’s why Nirvana exploded in the early 1990s and why we’re still talking about them twenty years later. Looking back, their success seems wholly improbable, but Cobain offered young listeners a new way to rebel through sneers, shirks, and shrugs: the line “oh well, whatever, nevermind” may hold the key to this particular era in pop culture. That worldview, much like the album itself, proved surprisingly sophisticated, especially for seeming so unforced and unthinking.
Rather than dismiss everything and embrace nothing, Cobain uses irony to guard his darkest feelings, those emotional rape fantasies and crippling confusions that are too real and too raw to state directly. “Breed” becomes a repository for all his anxieties about conformity: “We don’t have to breed,” he sings, “We could plant a house, we could build a tree.” Then punctuates it with “she said!” How do you have any kind of relationship that doesn’t fit into prescribed roles? Cobain never figures that one out, which comes back to haunt him on “Polly” and the album’s final track, “Something In The Way.”