By: Eric Greenwood
Despite the legal train wreck impeding its release, this Nirvana retrospective kind of gets the blood flowing again. Regardless of whether you give Kurt Cobain's songwriting an ounce of credit or not, Nirvana changed the course of music, which sounds utterly bombastic and over the top, but it's true. What is up for debate, though, is whether the course of music changed for the better. I argue that it did not, but that has nothing to do with my opinion of Nirvana. It reflects more on the nature of the music business and how unflattering mimicry can be when it's watered down to the point that it's unrecognizable.
Thankfully, this black-packaged, no frills, self-titled compilation lets the music speak for itself. In my estimation, Kurt Cobain knew how to write a catchy hook. He once said that everything comes back to melody because it's the most palatable thing to the human ear. Cobain also possessed a voice that, when combined with his dejected style of songwriting, created something extraordinary. It was the vocal equivalent of a Jeckyll and Hyde persona. Jumping from a whisper to a scream has become as ubiquitous as the power chord in the years since Cobain's death, as every scene from commercial alternative rock to emo to hardcore has co-opted his trade-mark style, but when Nirvana hit the mainstream such extreme vocal histrionics were only to be found in the dregs of underground punk and on obscure indie records.
Of course, Cobain stole his vocal tricks from underground idols like Black Francis and Steve Albini, but he made them work in new and unintentionally accessible ways, which his idols had been unable or unwilling to do. There's a big difference between screaming and screaming in tune, and by the time Nirvana recorded Nevermind, Cobain had mastered the latter. When Nirvana burst onto the scene in the fall of 1991, it was like a punch in the gut that nobody saw coming. Everything else just seemed silly and pointless by comparison. It's true that all hair metal died the moment "Smells Like Teen Spirit" premiered on MTV. Axl Rose suddenly seemed like a pansy. I listened to nothing but Nevermind for at least six months straight. It was raw and angry and melodic all at once, and it permanently changed the way I listened to music.
Of course, I can't listen to Nevermind the way I did when it was new. It doesn't pack the same punch. Nothing could after that much exposure. It sounds way too produced and slick to me now. Maybe, I've just heard it too many times. It's more likely that I'm just too accustomed to the dynamic that Nirvana imbedded into popular culture. It's like listening to the Sex Pistols in 2002- it sounds like bad bar rock, but at the time of its release it was the craziest thing ever, so you have to put it in context. I can still appreciate the songs on Nevermind, though, because the melodies are what make them special. That's where Cobain's true talent reigned supreme. Nirvana's noisier, weirder songs – like the ones that comprised Incesticide – sound too disjointed, forced even. Cobain was a fish out of water when he tried to be weird, but when he let his ear for melody do the work, everything just gelled.
This compilation seems way too short- unrepresentative of what Nirvana was about, but it gets the point across well enough. The one new song, "You Know You're Right", is the only reason to make the purchase if you have all the studio albums. As everyone knows by now, it was the last song the band recorded together just months before Cobain blew his own face off with a shotgun. It embodies the same extreme soft/loud dynamic that Nirvana had perfected even before "Smells Like Teen Spirit" broke, but it sounds just as tense and vital as anything the band ever recorded. Lyrically, Cobain employs his usual set of dour phrases full of self-mockery and sarcasm: "things have never been so swell/and I have never felt so well…pain." But he also takes a jab at his wife, the malignant Courtney Love: "nothin’ really bothers her/she just wants to love herself", which may explain why she delayed its release for so long.
The rest of the compilation runs through the hits in a strangely digitized and remastered format that makes me long for the original masters. From the sensitive yearning of "About A Girl" to the child-like nostalgia of "Sliver", it's clear that no matter the subject, Cobain never sounded like a faker. His ability to put his confusion and frustration across so succinctly is what fuels the zeitgeist even to this day (forgive me for using the word "zeitgeist"; I typically want to punch people who use it, but I couldn't think of a more appropriate substitute). The singles from Nevermind wash by me without effect, stripped of all impact; they just make me want to hear the lesser-known (by comparison) album tracks like "Lounge Act" and "On A Plain." "Been A Son" is the only random surprise. It's an average Nirvana song in the midst of such selective company, but it stands out, perhaps, for its simplicity and lyrical empathy (Cobain liked to put forth the notion that he was freakishly anti-male, often writing from a victimized woman's perspective).
Nirvana is comprised of practically one half of Nevermind and one half of In Utero- its two most commercially successful albums, which makes Nirvana an inessential purchase for fans. It's merely a convenient mix, but not one any fan would make. As an introduction it serves as a glossy Cliff's Notes. The omissions are egregious. Bleach is horribly ignored, apart from the sappy "About A Girl", as are most of the band's classic b-sides like "Aneurysm" and "Dive." The songs off In Utero sound strikingly fresh and alive, as though the dust has yet to settle- much more so than anything off Nevermind, particularly "Pennyroyal Tea", but still Nirvana, the compilation, will leave you wanting. So the wise, economical fan would download "You Know You're Right" and dust off the original albums instead of investing in this thinly veiled cash cow.