When Nevermind exploded into earshot in the autumn of 1991, it was startling: a grenade detonating in your car radio. It sounded like the end of something (the 1980s? hair metal?), or maybe the beginning of something (“alternative rock”? “Generation X”?). Today, the album has become so encrusted with myth, that it’s hard to wrap your ears around it, to really hear it. In 2005, the Library of Congress added Nevermind to its roll call of the world’s most significant recordings. It’s a museum piece, a record that merits a display in the Smithsonian. And, of course, a doorstopper 20th-anniversary box set.
How you choose to mark the occasion will depend on the state of your stock portfolio, and the degree of your wonkiness. The Deluxe Edition augments the remastered LP with fantastic B sides (check “Curmudgeon,” featuring the howlingest metal- dude vocal Kurt Cobain ever recorded) and stupefying live performances; plus demos, previously unreleased BBC sessions and eight cruddy-vérité “boombox rehearsals” of Nevermind tracks. Fork out an extra $100-plus for the Super Deluxe Edition and you get all that, plus a version of Nevermind mixed by Butch Vig, before Andy Wallace was brought in for the final mix, a CD and DVD of a mind-blowing 1991concert at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre, and a 90-page book.
The extras offer history lessons – and help you hear Nevermind with fresh ears. The live versions of “Breed” and “Drain You” show why Nirvana may be the greatest power trio ever: The heave and thrust of Krist Novoselic’s bass, the Bonhamworthy attack of Dave Grohl’s drums, the tumult of Cobain’s singing, which proved screaming yourself hoarse could be as powerful, and as beautiful, as any vocal style. Compare the boombox demos with the finished LP – where Cobain’s songs were burnished to a fiery glow – and you realize it was pop, not punk, that turned Nirvana into the biggest band on Earth. As works of melodic craftsmanship, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Lithium” and “Lounge Act” are up there with the best of Buddy Holly, Smokey Robinson and other genius hook masters.
Twenty years on, Nevermind is everywhere: Its loud-quiet-loud dynamics even power hits by Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. The lasting impact on mainstream bubblegum is ironic, considering its big theme: the ambivalence of an independent band going for the brass ring. Just listen to the dripping disdain of Cobain’s most famous refrain: “Here we are now, entertain us.”
Cobain claimed to be embarrassed by Nevermind’s glossy production: “It’s closer to a Mötley Crüe record than it is a punk-rock record,” he said. Of course, that’s what you expect him to say. His punk purism was a religion, but it was also a shtick, his version of showbiz. Listening to Nevermind now, you marvel at what a good show the band puts on. For a record so full of angst, it’s quite a party – an adrenaline rush that sweeps you up. That’s not a feeling you can pin to any genre or ideology. That’s not punk or grunge or even pop. That’s entertainment.
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