Like a lot of people my age, this was the first exposure I had to grunge music. At first, the very idea of grunge just didn’t appeal to me – a genre made up of scruffy guys with bad hair and lumberjack shirts. Then my friends kept playing Smells Like Teen Spirit, and the intro burrowed into my head like an earworm.
I have trouble listening to this record now. I can’t hear anything resembling punk or new wave anymore; all I can hear is the perfect production by Butch Vig – the fantastic separation of voice and instruments, and the rampant double-tracking on the vocals.
There’s a great episode of Classic Albums where Vig isolates the vocals on In Bloom and you can hear just how strong those vocal melodies are on the chorus – Cobain’s lead vocal double-tracked, and then supported by Dave Grohl’s backing vocals, also double-tracked. Vig convinced Cobain that this was a good idea because it’s something that John Lennon would have done. That in itself sounds like a million miles away from punk rock.
Of the two albums, I prefer In Utero as a piece of work, and always have done. The songwriting isn’t overshadowed by the production on that album; and despite that album being the soundtrack to Cobain’s suicide, there doesn’t seem to be as much hype and baggage to put up with. I do enjoy the second side of Nevermind though, when you get away from all the overplayed singles that are littered on the first side. The album just seems to breathe a little easier on that side.
Still, Nevermind holds a lot of memories for me, and always will. That crazy photo of the baby underwater is a beautiful image – and proof that classic album covers didn’t die out in the digital age. Even the blurry photo of the band (on the back of the record sleeve, but on the inlay of the CD if I remember correctly) brings a smile to my face. In fact, the whole production design of the album is pretty awesome – the album title written in a font to make it look like it’s floating on top of water, and the back cover made to look like shimmering sunlight refracted through the water of a swimming pool. I spent many an hour of my teens just looking at the album art, and at that age you read far too much into every little thing. It just seemed important.
Throughout my adolescence (in the UK) I encountered plenty of people who were anti-American. These people will eschew anything from that side of the Atlantic, while singing the praises of anything recorded by the British, just simply because it’s British. I’ve never really understood this musical racism, and some of my closest friends have been blighted by it.
I was asked once why would I want to listen to an American chap singing about killing himself, when I could listen to an Englishman sing about living forever?
The answer is simple – there’s more joy and energy in one line of a Kurt Cobain’s song than in a lifetime of Oasis records. I’ll take invention and imagination over mediocrity any day.
Hit: Smells Like Teen Spirit
Hidden Gem: Lounge Act