If you really want to know what makes a song tick, sometimes the best source is someone who has done their own interpretation of it. “Lithium” is known as one of the individual explosions found on the collective Big Bang of grunge that was Nirvana’s Nevermind album, released in 1991. But when sisters Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne took a shot at it on the album Not Dark Yetin 2017, they managed to find new layers of intrigue and insight in this brilliant composition.
Moorer spoke to American Songwriter about the special nature of the song. “Lithium” has always been one of my favorite Nirvana tunes,” Moorer says. “The introspective (and funny) verses juxtaposed with the primal scream of the chorus checks all the boxes of what a great rock and roll song should be. When my sister and I recorded it, we found lots of room in it to play and we took that further every time we performed it. That’s another hallmark of a great song — it’s wonderful and mysterious when one can be interpreted in so many ways.”
Kurt Cobain wrote the song by imagining a scenario where a man, grieving over the death of his girlfriend, finds solace in religion. As was often the case with Nirvana’s material, their trademark quiet-loud dynamic added impact to the track but somewhat overshadowed just how clever the lyrics were. That seemed to be the way Cobain wanted it with “Lithium” anyway, as evidenced by the aw-shucks manner in which he delivers the verses.
But a closer inspection reveals how Cobain could, as Moorer mentions, add subtle bits of humor without ever shying away from some of the song’s darker themes. He hints at how his blessed new life is contradicted by his baser urges: “I’m so horny but that’s OK/ My will is good.” And the narrator seems to hint that the outer trappings of his religious enlightenment are somewhat futile: “I’m so lonely but that’s OK I shaved my head/ And I’m not sad.”
There is a feeling that his conversion is his way of simply avoiding the tragedy that befell him. When he sings, “Sunday morning is every day for all I care,” you don’t sense a lot of conviction in his belief. And when he follows up with “Light my candles in a daze/ Cause I’ve found God,” the suggestion is that he is still a lot more wounded than he chooses to let on.
The refrain of “I’m not gonna crack” is a seeming indication of his steadfastness and his ability to withstand his hardship. But again, Cobain delivers sharp contrasts to this in the lines preceding: “I miss you/ I’m not gonna crack/ I love you/ I’m not gonna crack/ I’ll kill you/ I’m not gonna crack.”
As one of the follow-up singles to the massive smash “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Lithium” understandably didn’t make near the same impact. But you can make the argument that it stands up as well as any of Nirvava’s best. And, as yet another example of Kurt Cobain’s truly unique songwriting gifts, it is simply indispensable.