Nirvana - Nevermind - Review
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critics' view

Despite its tremendous influence on the mainstream rock that followed, it's hard to think of another album that sounds much like Nirvana's Nevermind, a record with so much more pop and punk punch than any music it inspired. Of course, no diamond-certified, canonical treasure hitting the two-decade mark can be left well enough alone in 2011— especially one that changed the lives of a lot people now approaching middle age, with the discretionary income to prove it. After all, "super deluxe" reissues of classic albums don't even have to be tied to an anniversary these days. But Nevermind is 20 this week, still a pretty respectable number in a world where any milestone marks an excuse to shift a few more units.

Nirvana began their career with no illusions about their chances for mass success and ended it by seeing just how abrasive a platinum-selling band could get away with being. But when they got their chance at the brass ring, they went at it with a bubblegum band's canniness, however much Cobain shit on the shiny final product after the fact. Andy Wallace's radio-ready mix certainly helped sharpen this potentially no-concessions, indie-to-major leap into an obvious commercial proposition. But even if they'd settled on producer Butch Vig's slightly less slick mixes— made as a reference for the band and identified on the super deluxe edition's third disc as the "Devonshire mixes"— Nevermind would likely have fared well in the charts, since these early passes aren't far from Wallace's infamous high-gloss version. Listening in hindsight, though, they have the woozy effect of feeling just slightly off, leaving you to focus only on what's missing.

The box set does make clear that Nirvana honed these songs over a long period. Listening to the various sessions leading up to the one that gave us the album we know— especially the nearly unlistenable "boombox" mixes of early demos— you learn very quickly that these songs didn't arrive perfectly formed in one sustained burst of inspiration. The hours of rehearsals and the expensive time spent tinkering in the studio shaped them into classics. It helped that there are songs on Nevermind that might appeal to people who've never heard a hardcore album in their lives, who might have even (gasp!) kinda liked the glossier hard-rock bands whose era largely ended with the rise of grunge. Moving away from the heavy-at-all-costs sound he'd always been both enamored with and suspicious of, Cobain worked diligently on his big hooks and decided to stop smothering his natural melodic gifts under so much self-conscious sludge.

The key was that Nirvana, unlike many of their indie peers, didn't assume that intensity was incompatible with polish. Cobain's discomfort could be unnerving because it sounded as unmediated as anything allowed on the radio could get. There was too much pop-rock study involved to claim Nevermind as some kind of art brut document of one dude's unraveling. Confronted with something like "Polly", Cobain's distress was obvious in 1991, long before his shotgun-assisted exit. But it wasn't the way Nevermind exposed Cobain's psychic wounds that provided support for those who related to him. It was the fact that, fucked up as he was, Cobain still found pleasure in rock's most emphatic clichés and bent them to his own never-quite-smirking ends. He snuck into the spotlight while remaining an alienated weirdo, but for a while there, you suspected he was enjoying the attention, even if he knew that it was all a joke to be taken about as seriously as high school cliquishness. "Territorial Pissings" is as raw as any punk song I know, but it actually found its way into the hands of suburban tweens. How good must that have felt, to be responsible for such a thing?

Even as they moved toward the mainstream, Nirvana were trying shit that no one would have called an easy route to success. Nevermind is drenched in the filthy Pacific Northwest roar that slapped Cobain into action as a teen, but it's as catchy as any of the radio giants that caught his ear as a kid. It's driven by pain as naked and personal as the riot grrrl bands whose company he kept and as fuck-around goofy as the Seattle contemporaries who both reveled in and mercilessly parodied machismo. And despite the fact that none of those modes would seem to fit together on the same album, let alone all of them, it's all hammered into a still-disarming whole, a collection of anthems that retain the idiosyncrasies of the very weird band that made them. It helped that Cobain had yet to be disabused of the idea that you could be an idiosyncratic indie kid and a rock star without compromising on either front.

For all its finessing and tweaking from the demos, Nevermind is still a thousand times closer to the unpremeditated intensity of Cobain's D.I.Y. days than any of the post-grunge rockers who claimed it as an influence. I defy you to listen to any of the live performances on this edition— the only essential extras, though less uncomfortably intense than 1994's MTV Unplugged set and less definitive and uniformly powerful than 2009's release of their king-making set at the 1992 Reading Festival— and not hear a ragged, joyful, charismatic band that makes those inert, angst-ridden followers sound like they come from another aesthetic universe.

That charisma is a big reason why Nevermind remains a 10.

Jess Harvell
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Pitchfork is an American online magazine launched in 1995 by Ryan Schreiber, based in Chicago, Illinois, and owned by Condé Nast. Being developed during Schreiber's tenure in a record store at the time, the magazine developed a reputation for its extensive focus on independent music, but has since expanded to a variety of coverage on both indie and popular music. The site generally concentrates on new music, but Pitchfork journalists have also reviewed reissues and box sets. Since 2016, it has published retrospective reviews of classic or otherwise important albums every Sunday. The site has also published "best-of" lists – such as the best albums of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and the best songs of the 1960s – as well as annual features detailing the best albums and tracks of each year since 1999 (and a retrospective Best Albums of 1998 list in 2018).
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