Nevermind is the second studio album by the American rock band Nirvana, released on September 24, 1991. Produced by Butch Vig, Nevermind was the group's first release on Geffen Records, which signaled its move away from Seattle-based independent record label Sub Pop. Front man Kurt Cobain sought to make music outside of the restrictive confines of the Seattle grunge scene, drawing influence from groups such as the Pixies and its use of loud/quiet song dynamics.
Despite low commercial expectations by the band and its record label, Nevermind became a surprise success in late 1991, largely due to the popularity of its first single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit". By January 1992 it had replaced Michael Jackson's album Dangerous at number one on the Billboard charts. The album has been certified ten times platinum (10 million copies shipped) by the Recording Industry Association of America. Nevermind was responsible for bringing alternative rock to a large mainstream audience, and would subsequently be regarded as one of the best rock albums of all time.
Meanwhile Cobain was writing a number of new songs. Feeling disillusioned by the heavy detuned rock popular in the Seattle grunge scene and which Sub Pop had built its image upon, Cobain at the time was listening to bands like R.E.M., The Smithereens, and the Pixies, and began writing more melodic songs as a result. A key development was the single "Sliver", released on Sub Pop in 1990 (before Grohl joined the band), which Cobain said "was like a statement in a way. I had to write a pop song and release it on a single to prepare people for the next record. I wanted to write more songs like that. Grohl said that the band at that point often made the analogy of likening their music to children's music, in that the band tried to make its songs as simple as possible.
By the start of the 1990s Sub Pop was experiencing financial difficulties. With rumors that Sub Pop would sign up as a subsidiary for a major label, the band decided to "cut out the middleman" and start to look for a major label. A number of labels courted the band, but Nirvana ultimately signed with Geffen Records based upon the recommendation of its management, who also managed the band's idols (and recent Geffen signings) Sonic Youth, and Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon.
After signing to Geffen, a number of producers for the album were suggested, including Scott Litt, David Briggs, and Don Dixon, but Nirvana held out for Vig. Novoselic noted in 2001 that the band was already nervous about recording on a major label, since the producers suggested wanted percentage points for the album, and they optioned for Vig, whom they felt comfortable collaborating with. Afforded a budget of $65,000, Nirvana recorded Nevermind at Sound City Studios in Los Angeles, California in May and June 1991. Nirvana was originally set to record the album during March and April 1991, but the date kept getting pushed back in spite of the band's anxiousness to begin the sessions. To pay for gas money to get to Los Angeles, Nirvana played a show where they played "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for the first time. The band sent Vig some rehearsal tapes prior to the sessions that featured the Smart Sessions songs along with some new ones, notably "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Come as You Are".
When it arrived in California, Nirvana did a few days of pre-production where the band and Vig tightened up some of the song arrangements. The only recording carried over from the Smart Studios sessions was the song "Polly", which included cymbal crashes performed by Chad Channing. Once recording commenced, the band worked eight to ten hours a day. The band members tended to take two or three tries at instrumental takes; if the takes weren't satisfactory at that point, they would move on to something else. The group had rehearsed the songs so much before recording started that often only a few takes were needed. Novoselic and Grohl finished their bass and drum track in a matter of days, but Cobain had to work longer on guitar overdubs, singing, and particularly lyrics (which sometimes were finished mere minutes before recording). Cobain's phrasing was so consistent on various takes that Vig would mix the takes together to create overdubs. Vig often had to trick Cobain, who was averse to performing multiple takes, into recording additional takes for overdubs. In particular, Vig convinced Cobain to double-track his vocals on the song "In Bloom" by telling him "John Lennon did it." While the sessions went well generally, Vig said Cobain would become moody and difficult at times: "He'd be great for an hour, and then he'd sit in a corner and say nothing for an hour."
After the recording sessions were completed, Vig and the band set out to mix the album. However, after a few days, both Vig and the band members realized that they were unhappy with how the mixes were turning out. As a result, they decided to call in someone else to oversee the mixing, with DGC supplying a list of possible options. The list contained several familiar names, including Scott Litt (known for his work with R.E.M.) and Ed Stasium (known for his work with The Smithereens). However, Cobain feared that bringing in known mixers would result in the album sounding like the work of those bands. Instead, Cobain chose Andy Wallace (who had co-produced Slayer's 1990 album Seasons in the Abyss) from the bottom of the list. Novoselic recalled, "We said, 'right on,' because those Slayer records were so heavy. Wallace ran the songs through various special effects boxes and tweaked the drum sounds, completing about one mix per day. Both Wallace and Vig noted years later that upon hearing Wallace's work the band loved the mixes. After the album's release members of Nirvana expressed dissatisfaction with the polished sound the mixer had given Nevermind. Cobain said in Come as You Are, "Looking back on the production of Nevermind, I'm embarrassed by it now. It's closer to a Mötley Crüe record than it is a punk rock record."
Nevermind was mastered on the afternoon of August 2 in The Mastering Lab in Hollywood, California. Howie Weinberg started working alone when no one else showed up at the appointed time in the studio; by the time Nirvana, Andy Wallace, and Gary Gersh arrived, Weinberg had mastered most of the album. One of the songs mastered at the session, a hidden track called "Endless, Nameless" intended to appear at the end of "Something in the Way", was accidentally left off initial pressings of the album. Weinberg recalled, "In the beginning, it was kind of a verbal thing to put that track at the end. Maybe I misconstrued their instructions, so you can call it my mistake if you want. Maybe I didn't write it down when Nirvana or the record company said to do it. So, when they pressed the first twenty thousand or so CDs, albums, and cassettes, it wasn't on there." When the band discovered the song's omission after listening to its copy of the album, Cobain called Weinberg and demanded he rectify the mistake. Weinberg complied and added about ten minutes of silence between the end of "Something in the Way" and the start of the hidden track on future pressings of the album.
The album debuted on the Billboard 200 at position 144, which was high enough for the album to also top the Heatseekers chart. Geffen shipped about half of the initial US pressing to the American Northwest, where it sold out quickly and was unavailable for days. Geffen reputedly put production of all other albums on hold in order to fulfill demand in the region. Nevermind was already selling well, but over the next few months the album momentum increased significantly as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" unexpectedly became more and more popular. The song's video had received a world premiere on MTV's late night alternative show 120 Minutes but it soon proved so popular that the channel began playing it during the day. The record was soon certified gold, but the band was relatively uninterested in the achievement. Novoselic recalled, "Yeah I was happy about it. It was pretty cool. It was kind of neat. But I don't give a shit about some kind of achievement like that. It's cool—I guess.
As the band set out for their European tour at the start of November 1991, Nevermind entered the Billboard Top 40 for the first time at number 35. By this point "Smells Like Teen Spirit" had become a genuine hit and the album was selling so fast none of Geffen's marketing strategies aimed at different sales levels could be enacted. Geffen president Ed Rosenblatt told the New York Times, "We didn't do anything. It was just one of those 'Get out of the way and duck' records. Nirvana found as they toured Europe during the end of 1991 that the shows were dangerously oversold, television crews became a constant presence onstage, and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was almost omnipresent on radio and music television.
Nevermind became Nirvana's first number one album on January 11, 1992, replacing Michael Jackson at the top of the Billboard charts. By this time Nevermind was selling approximately 300,000 copies a week. "Come As You Are" was finally released as the second single in March of 1992; it peaked at number 32 on the Billboard charts. Two more singles, "Lithium" and "In Bloom," were released from the album. Nevermind eventually spent two hundred and fifty-two weeks on the Billboard 200.
Nevermind was certified Gold and Platinum by the RIAA on November 27, 1991, and was certified Diamond on March 24, 1999. It was also certified Diamond in Canada (1,000,000 units) by the CRIA on March 19, 2001.
Rolling Stone gave the album three out of five stars; reviewer Ira Robbins wrote, "If Nirvana isn't onto anything altogether new, Nevermind does possess the songs, character and confident spirit to be much more than a reformulation of college radio's high-octane hits. The Boston Globe was less enthusiastic about the album; reviewer Steve Morse wrote, "Most of Nevermind is packed with generic punk-pop that had been done by countless acts from Iggy Pop to the Red Hot Chili Peppers," and added "the band has little or nothing to say, settling for moronic ramblings by singer-lyricist Cobain.
Nevermind was voted as the best album of the year in The Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics poll; "Smells Like Teen Spirit" also topped the single of the year and video of the year polls. Nevermind topped the poll by a large majority, and Village Voice critic Robert Christgau wrote in his companion piece to the poll, "As a modest pop surprise they might have scored a modest victory, like De La Soul in 1990. Instead their multiplatinum takeover constituted the first full-scale public validation of the Amerindie values--the noise, the toons, the 'tude--the radder half of the [Pazz & Jop poll] electorate came up on.
Nevermind has continued to garner critical praise since its release. The album was listed at number seventeen on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Time placed Nevermind, which writer Josh Tyrangiel called "the finest album of the 90s," on its 2006 list of "The All-TIME 100 Albums. In 2004, the Library of Congress chose Nevermind as one of fifty albums to be added to the National Recording Registry that year.
Guitar World wrote, "Kurt Cobain's guitar sound on Nirvana's Nevermind set the tone for Nineties rock music." On Nevermind, Cobain played a 1960s Fender Mustang, a Fender Jaguar with DiMarzio pickups, and a few Fender Stratocasters with humbucker bridge pickups. The guitarist used distortion and chorus pedals as his main effects, the latter used to generate a "watery" sound on "Come as You Are" and the prechoruses of "Smells Like Teen Spirit". Krist Novoselic tuned down his bass guitar one and a half steps to D flat "to get this fat-ass sound".
Charles R. Cross asserted in his 2001 biography of Kurt Cobain, Heavier Than Heaven, that many of the songs written for Nevermind were about Cobain's dysfunctional relationship with Tobi Vail. After the relationship ended, Cobain began writing and painting violent scenes, many of which revealed hatred for himself and others. Songs written during this period were less violent, but still reflected an anger absent from Cobain's earlier songs. Cross wrote that "In the four months following their break-up, Kurt would write a half dozen of his most memorable songs, all of them about Tobi Vail". "Drain You" begins with the line "One baby to another said 'I'm lucky to have met you'", quoting what Vail had once told Cobain, and the line "It is now my duty to completely drain you" refers to the power Vail had over Kurt in their relationship. According to Novoselic, "'Lounge Act' is about Tobi", and the song contains the line "I'll arrest myself, I'll wear a shield", referring to Cobain having the K Records logo tattooed on his arm to impress Vail. Though "Lithium" had been written previous to Cobain knowing Vail, the lyrics of the song were changed to reference her. Cobain also said in an interview with Musician that "some of my very personal experiences, like breaking up with girlfriends and having bad relationships, feeling that death void that the person in the song is feeling–very lonely, sick.
The Nevermind album cover shows a baby swimming toward a US dollar bill on a fishhook. According to Cobain, he conceived the idea while watching a television program on water births with Grohl. Cobain mentioned it to Geffen's art director Robert Fisher. Fisher found some stock footage of underwater births but they were too graphic for the record company. Also, the stock house that controlled the photo of a swimming baby that they subsequently settled on wanted $7,500 a year for its use, so instead Fisher sent a photographer to a pool for babies to take pictures. Five shots resulted and the band settled on the image of a three-month-old infant named Spencer Elden, the son of the photographer's friend Rick Elden. However, there was some concern because Elden's penis was visible in the image. Geffen prepared an alternate cover without the penis, as they were afraid that it would offend people, but relented when Cobain made it clear that the only compromise he would accept was a sticker covering the penis that would say "If you're offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile.
The back cover of the album features a photograph of a rubber monkey in front of a collage created by Cobain. The collage features photos of raw beef from a supermarket advert, images from Dante's Inferno, and pictures of diseased vaginas from Cobain's collection of medical photos. Cobain noted, "If you look real close, there is a picture of Kiss in the back standing on a slab of beef. The album's liner notes contain no complete song lyrics; instead, the liner contains random song lyrics and unused lyrical fragments that Cobain arranged into a poem. The complete lyrics to the album would appear in the liner notes of the "Lithium" CD single in July, 1992.
Michael Azerrad argued in his Nirvana biography Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana (1993) that Nevermind marked the emergence of a generation of music fans in their twenties in a climate dominated by the musical tastes of the baby boomer generation that preceded them. Azerrad wrote, "Nevermind came along at exactly the right time. This was music by, for, and about a whole new group of young people who had been overlooked, ignored, or condescended to. Rolling Stone wrote in its entry for Nevermind on its 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, "No album in recent history had such an overpowering impact on a generation -- a nation of teens suddenly turned punk -- and such a catastrophic effect on its main creator."
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