In many ways, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the ‘90s version of “Like a Rolling Stone”: the song that stopped time in tracks and changed everything that came after it. But there’s a key difference: “Like a Rolling Stone” was truly revolutionary its approach of combining rock music with sophisticated lyrics. The sound of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” wasn’t particularly new (just listen to the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa for instance), but it sounded revolutionary to most people’s ears. And that can be just as powerful.
Usually, front-loading an album with the single (and what would become the band’s most famous song) is a risky move: will the rest of the songs measure up? But also “Like a Rolling Stone” (which was the lead track off of “Highway 61 Revisited”), it’s a signal of things to come. What follows on both albums is a set of brilliant songs that find both artists at the peak of their powers.
The genius of “Nevermind” lies in its contradictions. The band attacks its songs with a punk-rock thrash but the melodies are catchy as anything the Beatles came up up. The guitars are distorted with noisy solos, but the production is clean and crisp: purposely designed to get a big audience. Cobain’s screams and wails sound angry (and they definitely can be) but there’s also wit and sarcasm in the songs too. (Something that is missing from Pearl Jam’s “Ten”, much as I like that album.)
I was too young to truly grasp the impact that “Nevermind” or “Teen Spirit” had musically or culturally. But even at 9 years old, when I first heard the song in my older brother’s bedroom, I could tell something was special about Nirvana that set them apart. The music was so immediate and intense. Like the mumbled lyrics of R.E.M.’s “Murmur”, it didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand a fucking thing Kurt Cobain sang. What mattered was that it stopped people in their tracks and made them feel something.
Sometime later, when one of my other brothers gave me a cassette of “Nevermind”, I played the hell out of it on my walkman on the bus ride to school. I loved every single song on the album for different reasons: the watery guitar sounds of “Come As You Are”; the instrumental break-down on “Drain You”; the double-timed second half of “Lounge Act” just to name a few. Every single song was captivating and exhilarating.
As I got to be a bit older, I began to had a more conflicted view of “Nevermind”. Be it elitist or stupidity (and maybe they’re the same?) I began to discredit its merits over artists who were noisier than Nirvana or artists who I felt like the band owed a massive debt to. This is a case where listening to “Raw Power” too much can be detrimental: “Nevermind” should have sounded as abrasive as that! Or: Damn, every single song Kurt wrote is a half-assed Pixies song! The most absurd was thinking “MTV Unplugged” was the only good thing they did.
These ideas are not only bullshit, but flawed. “Raw Power” is great and so are the Pixies. Nirvana’s Unplugged performance is legendary, but it’s not the band’s definitive statement. And “Nevermind” deserves every accolade it gets, because it’s the kind of album that comes along once in a lifetime. It changed everything. Of course, sometimes that means you forget how great the songs were and what a visionary Kurt Cobain was. Take an hour and listen to the album with fresh ears. Brush aside all the hype, impact and stories. Just turn up the stereo and take it in.
That’s why we’re talking about it 25 years later.