Jere Hester

Smells Like a Nirvana Anniversary

The band’s “Nevermind” marks its silver anniversary as the gold standard of grunge

R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, when inducting Nirvana into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, noted the band members rubbed each other “the wrong way and exactly the right way, at the right time." 

That push-and-pull dynamic also played out in the Seattle trio’s songs – no more so than on their breakout album "Nevermind," a combustible mix of ambivalence, defiance and depression that exploded on impact when it landed Sept. 24, 1991.

The album that became the gold standard for grunge marked its silver anniversary this week, standing as a product of creative friction that reverberates with the same raw power as when it first blasted 25 years ago

The classic cover showing a naked baby in a pool with a dollar bill just beyond his reach oddly matched the album’s title, and helped set the tone before the first play. If the image hit a sardonic note, the songs struck multiple uneasy chords with restless youth in the post-Reagan years.  

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" marked a siren call, by turns anthemic, nonsensical and visceral. "Come as You Are" tendered an invitation oozing with appealing creepiness. "Lithium" offered a stark tale of bi-polar struggle, reflected in a tune that goes from bouncy to thrashing and back.

Deeper cuts also cut deep, from "Polly," a haunting and catchy acoustic number that presaged the band’s indelible 1993 "MTV Unplugged" gig to the confused bitterness of "Lounge Act."

Drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic drove Nirvana’s pounding post-punk urgency. But it was frontman, guitarist and primary songwriter Kurt Cobain who gave Nirvana its melodic clarity, its guitar distortion and lyrical desperation by channeling his demons, angst and sadness-tinged sweetness.

Cobain died less than three years after "Nevermind" debuted, making him a member of the so-called 27 Club, a nod to the final age of too many rockers lost too soon. He, Grohl and Novoselic should be known better for "Nevermind" reaching the 25 Club – an exclusive group of albums that arrived at exactly the right time and appear destined to resound well beyond a quarter-century.

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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