So much has been said about Nirvana at this point in magazines and on talking head basic cable clip shows that another documentary almost seems superfluous. But the Classic Albums series is always a cut above the average reminiscence release, thanks to its dedication to looking underneath the sheen of the finished recording at the process that created it. In the case of Nirvana's "Nevermind" it's not just the sound of the album that's important, but the impact it had on popular music.
When they recorded "Nevermind," Nirvana were a trio of scruffy musicians with the expectation of maybe selling a couple hundred thousand records. With the simple, groovy basslines of Kris Novaselic, the powerhouse drumming or Dave Grohl and, most especially, the writing, singing, and guitar playing of Kurt Cobain, the band had the perfect ingredients to mix punk abrasiveness with Beatles melody and the abstract word-music of the Pixies into something new. "Nevermind" was a landmark in rock that took the wind out of the sails of the waning 80's hair band genre and introduced the gritty, pared-down sounds of punk and underground rock to the mainstream.
Produced by Butch Vig (who later went on to co-found the band Garbage), "Nevermind" was a blast of feedback and noise directed directly at the ears of the kids who needed a new sound. But it's also a tremendously complex record, filled with beautiful melodies and somber dirges. The band can turn from the chaos of "Territorial Pissings" to the watery depths of "Come As You Are," from the surprisingly happy bounce of "Drain You" to the somber, almost ghostly "Something in the Way," with absolute clarity, weaving a consistency throughout all the tempos and sounds.
The album, of course, is kicked off with "Smells Like Teen Spirit," a song of such pop perfection that it's been played and played again to the point of absurdity. But beyond the radio success of this most memorable of singles lies a simple structure, memorable hooks, ambiguously magnetic lyrics ("A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido") and musicianship that ranges from the bouncy rhythm section of the verses to the thunderous choruses to the buzzsaw guitar solo, which wraps up with a ringing echo of feedback. With all the Limp Bizkits and Linkin Parks on the scene today it's still stunning how live and raw "Teen Spirit" sounded.
Like much of the Classic Albums program, the best part of the "Teen Spirit" segment is when Vig sits in the studio and dissects the various isolated tracks to show how a sound - even one as seemingly threadbare as Nevermind's - is constructed. Removing all but Cobain's vocals on "Teen Spirit" Vig shows how hard the man sang. His vocal chords do sound like they're almost tearing from strain over the final "denial"s. Similarly, the vocals on "In Bloom," taken away from the rest of the instrumentation are haunting in their simplicity. Hearing Cobain a capella like this (a new context for a voice we thought we'd head the last of) is eerie; It's like a voice crying out from the beyond. When Vig adds Cobain's second vocal track to "In Bloom" (the vocals were doubled on many cuts to give them a more mysterious, melodic quality), it becomes somehow bigger. Adding in Dave Grohl's two tracks of harmony suddenly turns this voice-only performance of the song into a symphony. It's striking how beautiful it sounds. Vig's orchestral treatment of this basic rock configuration is evident at other times as well, like when he layers five different guitars (ranging from a clean track to an ultra-fuzzed out distorted sound) to create something powerful and monumental.
Another song that gets a good bit of attention in the Classic Albums program (not every song is dissected) is the somber closer "Something in the Way." This melancholy dirge obviously affected Vig during recording. He recalls not feeling like it was working until Cobain laid on his back in the control room and strummed the guitar and sang in a whisper so quiet that he was concerned that any noise in the studio would ruin the take. Listening to this hushed performance with Vig, obviously moved by the memory, makes the lyrics - previously obtuse for this listener - take on new, personal meaning. Vig added minimal instrumentation to Cobain's initial reading of the song - subtle playing from Grohl and Novaselic as well as some funereal cello - but he helped nail the atmosphere Cobain brought to that session.
In addition to the studio segments, Classic Albums features typical interviews with folks like Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Rolling Stone writer David Fricke which add some minor insight but the only interviews that really count are with Vig and, especially, Grohl and Novaselic. Their stories and anecdotes of Nirvana are crucial to "Nevermind." Grohl, who's found enormous success with Foo Fighters, clearly holds his few short years in Nirvana in high regards. He's a funny interview subject with a laid-back style.
Novaselic, a lifelong friend of Cobain's, has almost a sad vibe about him. Near the end he croaks out that "Nevermind" is probably the best thing he'll ever do in his life. As far as creative highpoints go it's not a bad one to have under your belt, but the unspoken suggestion is that he missed Cobain very, very much. It's a heartbreaking little moment in a program that's far too classy to dwell on the darkest side of Nirvana's legacy. But, as with all the band's music, it's all there, under the surface. For a band that only released three studio albums (including one other classic, the much harsher Steve Albini-produced "In Utero") Nirvana's impact is tremendous.