Starting Five: Nirvana

More or less an opportunity for the Internet to tell us we’re wrong, Starting Five is also a challenge: choose five essential songs, films, or books that get to the heart of bands, filmmakers, and writers that we love. Today, in honor of the 50th birthday of Kurt Cobain, we look at five essential songs from Nirvana.

Starting Five: Nirvana

by Chad Jewett

“About A Girl”, Bleach (1989)
While the most potent iteration of their “Lennon/McCartney + Hardcore + 80s college rock” formula would ultimately surface on 1991’s Nevermind, Nirvana was already well on their way to figuring it out on their 1989 debut, Bleach. And though a lot of the Sub Pop-released album is dedicated to murky, scuffed punk, its best songs boast precisely the sour/sweet intrigue that revealed Kurt Cobain’s taste for the charming but understatedly dark indie-pop of K Records. “About A Girl” is the elemental example, a two-and-a-half minute gem shining conspicuously amongst the darker surroundings of Bleach. Minor key in its brooding verses, unabashedly major key in its sunny chorus, “About A Girl” doesn’t feature the roiling heaviness of Nevermind nor the withering bite of In Utero, but it does offer an early glimpse of Cobain’s knack for camouflaging power-pop as outsider art.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit”, Nevermind (1991)
If “About A Girl” proved early evidence of Kurt Cobain’s ability to create high-test pop music on the sly, then “Smells Like Teen Spirit” represented the Aberdeen, Washington native’s ability to strike just the right lyrical balance between Dadaist nonsense poetry and a language full of compelling, subterranean meaning. The lyrics of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” don’t necessarily track as narrative (“I found it hard / It’s hard to find / Oh well, whatever, nevermind”), but wherever they don’t express, they sure as hell evoke. It wasn’t just that the song’s iconic video taught millions of Generation X kids what underground chic looked like; it wasn’t simply that the combination of the song’s four simple chords and Dave Grohl and Krist Noveselic’s grinding, growling rhythm section created a whole different version of punk. The reason that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has joined an elite acme of rebellion anthems shared only by the likes of “My Generation” and “Anarchy In The U.K.” and “London Calling” is that it managed to speak to a feeling; if it didn’t make sense, all the better – for the kids of that era, who felt rejected for their difference, a lot of things didn’t make sense. With the desperate, frustrated, knotted-up language of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, Cobain captured that experience without ever needing to say it.

“Sliver”, Incesticide (1992)
Unabashed in its Pixies influence (that hopscotching bassline, that sing-song melody), unnerving in the clashing contrast of its sunny music – as poppy as Nirvana ever got – and its quietly haunting lyrics, “Sliver” was recorded between Bleach and Nevermind, evincing the basement-tape scrappiness of the former while hinting at the psychological depths of the latter. As gripping as Nirvana could be when shrieking under waves of feedback, the trio could prove just as harrowing when their arrangements were more cheerful. More direct and less opaque than the elliptical confessionals that Cobain would offer on Nevermind and In Utero, “Sliver” felt more unalloyed in its autobiography, telling the story of a young kid confused by the expectations of the adults around him – a sentiment that today feels as bonded to the significance of Cobain as an artist and icon as the more cloaked, shadowy stories that populate Nevermind.

“Scentless Apprentice”, In Utero (1993)
Alienated by the fame that Nevermind brought, bored by the familiar pop backbones of the album’s many hits and the numbing grind of playing them over and over and over again, Nirvana added a hardcore innovator to their tight ranks (Germs guitarist Pat Smear) and a sonically-severe iconoclast (Steve Albini) to the producer’s chair, all in an effort to rip it up and start again. The result was In Utero, a howling, acidic explosion of an album, a willfully atonal and thrillingly defiant masterpiece that has aged into Nirvana’s crowning achievement. Unlike Nevermind, In Utero resists being broken up into singles; the washed-out disquiet of “Pennyroyal Tea” makes the most sense when cycling into the thrumming, feedback wracked garage stomp of “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” which works best when followed by the snotty thrash of “Tourette’s”. The album’s best song is also one of its most challenging. Set to one of Dave Grohl’s most brilliantly thumping beats and built atop a bird’s nest of bending, bleating guitar noise, “Scentless Apprentice” sounds arrestingly different from Nevermind. During the verses Kurt Cobain’s voice is wrapped up in noise; during the chorus his deranged yelps of “Go awayyyyyy!!!” are soaked in fuzz and pushed uncomfortably forward, to the point that the hook itself sounds alien. Rock choruses don’t sound like this, especially not when they’re part of sequels to multi-platinum blockbusters. Which, of course, was the point.

“All Apologies”, MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
First released as the ghostly, arrestingly placid closer to the otherwise dense, chaotic In Utero, “All Apologies” received its definitive reading a few months after that album’s release, when it was performed as part of Nirvana’s live acoustic special for MTV. Stripped of the bombast that fills the song’s second half, the band’s Unplugged rendition would become an uncanny final statement from Cobain, one whose funereal hush and confessional lyrics (“What else could I write / I don’t have the right / What else should I be? / All apologies”) would ring with haunting meaning following the singer-songwriter’s suicide in April of 1994. Unfolding like the gentle, elegiac goodbye that it was destined to become, “All Apologies” sounded like the quiet after the storm that was the fraught, agonizing In Utero, a reminder of Kurt Cobain’s gifts for hushed understatement in the wake of his most bombastic tour de force.

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