December 9, 2009

Oh Well, Whatever...

I'm reading Chuck Klosterman's Eating The Dinosaur and I'm convinced that Klosterman possesses the ability to read minds because in that book are two essays, both of which touch something (or rather, two things) I've been meaning to write for a while.

One: Nirvana (the band) and their relative greatness.
Two: You can't unlearn something once you've learned it, approach something fresh after it's already been approached.

After touring behind the often overlooked Bleach, Nirvana reassembled itself (and added drummer Dave Grohl) and recorded what would become the post-punk Thriller. They called it, unassumingly, Nevermind. Which would come to represent Cobain's reaction to the critical praise lavished on the album.

In 1991, when Nevermind was released, I was in the throes of the whole Seattle grunge scene. I bought every album remotely connected to the scene including anything released on Sub Pop. So I knew who Nirvana was and picked up a copy of Nevermind as soon as it hit the street. I had the Pearl Jam "Alive Guy" poster on my bedroom wall and I owned more flannel than a lumberjack. I loved Nevermind's naked aggression and the unlikely hooks it seemed to possess but while I listened to it often, I tended to drift back to Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone, Temple of the Dog, Mudhoney. And then Pearl Jam's Ten came out which shocked and awed me. The resulting feud that later erupted between Eddie Vedder and Curt Cobain did nothing to move me into the Nirvana camp; in fact it pretty much swayed me the other way. That's not to say I didn't like Nevermind. I just liked other things better.

In the intervening years, enough people - both in the industry and outside of it - have lavished so much praise for Nevermind, heralding it a musical game-changer, that I thought, perhaps, I hadn't heard the same album or had been listening to it incorrectly (though I'm not sure I know how to listen any differently than I normally do). So I decided that I should give it a listen, eighteen years later, with my 37 year-old ears. Here's what I found out:

  • I can't unlearn this album. I can't Men In Black my brain and experience Nevermind fresh. I can't shake the memory of listening to Lithium on cassette with my 1989 Jeep Cherokee stereo cranked as loud as it could possibly go, the cold weather coming through the little triangular window by the sideview mirror opened so I smoke a Camel Light. I'd like to. I'd like to shake whatever musical and emotional baggage have accumulated over the intervening 18 years and get a shiny new take on Nevermind. But I can't. It's not possible.
  • I'm not trying to boast but there's no single guitar piece on this album that I couldn't have done at age 17. Cobain is not a guitar god. A seventeen year old with a beat up used black Ibanez guitar should not be able to play every single note of a guitar god upon first listen.
  • Post-punk alternative whatever-it-was shouldn't sound shiny. And Nevermind is too shiny. It became a tome of anthems against the status quo yet its production values were the status quo. Because it was a product meant to be consumed and consumed in large volumes. (This is, coincidentally, the same thing that bothers me about Ten. Ten was a nearly perfect album except that it's production severely dates the album. The Ten Redux does a great job fixing these flaws.) In fact - and as Klosterman points out exhaustively in Eating The Dinosaur - Nevermind's successor, In Utero, was specifically designed to be hard to listen to, to be challenging, to be counter-culture, in reaction to the success of Nevermind and, quite possibly, just to sound cool to those who thought they might have sold out. Bleach is a far better album. It's raw and brutal and honest and the music was never hidden behind gloss heaped on songs in the studio. Nevermind was too shiny for the counterculture it ended up representing. Bleach was far more perfect because of its imperfections.
  • Dave Grohl's Foo Fighters is a better band. Sure, they're not as edgy. They're not as counterculture. They're not mysterious and temperamental - in fact, they're quite nice - and they rarely smash their shit on stage. But where Nevermind's cuts are clearly from the early 90's and stand as reminders of a certain time and a certain place - replete with certain societal dissatisfaction - the Foo Fighters somehow manage to come up with near-timeless songs. I'd argue that Learn to Fly - one of my favorites - could have been a massive hit in the 70s and would have been equally popular in the 80s. In the 90s it would have stitched the gap between hair metal and grunge quite nicely.

I guess what I'm trying to say is this. Nevermind is overhyped. But that doesn't mean it isn't good. It just means that it's less good and more flawed than the world has been led to believe. And regardless of it's relative goodness, you can't unring a bell. You can't go back and listen to a piece of music or read a novel or watch a movie without bringing who you are now into the equation. And that's okay because music - Nevermind or whatever - is really the sum of what's committed to tape and what you, the listener bring to the experience.

What do you think is the most overhyped album in history? And what do you wish you could unlearn?

Posted by Chris at December 9, 2009 7:06 AM

1977's Captain and Tenille Greatest hits was over rated. I mean between that and 1973's Sha Na Na live in Germany Album.

Posted by: William at December 9, 2009 8:32 AM

I'm right there with you on Nirvana. If Cobain hadn't killed himself and they had gone on to put out 4 or 5 albums before breaking up nobody would be talking about them today.

Posted by: COD at December 9, 2009 9:12 AM

REM's Green. In fact, anything by REM. Such a mediocre pop band.

Posted by: Elise at December 9, 2009 9:40 AM

And I wish I could unlearn Led Zeppelin III. Man, I wish I could listen to that--or Physical Graffiti--with new ears.

Posted by: Elise at December 9, 2009 9:49 AM

Pearl Jam. I hate then, I hate Vedder. Trying to pretend they understand social issues just drives me batshit crazy, and "Ten" was ok, but I've liked nothing since.

Posted by: alektra at December 9, 2009 9:55 AM

*crack knuckles*

First, you are my musical doppleganger. You DO realize this, don't you?

Second, just to give you a little slice of your own awesome future: My 9 year old and I were in the car the other day, with the iPod on shuffle, and when it came on, he leaned all the way forward and said, "Mom, it's Yellow Ledbetter! Turn it up?" Yeah, awesome.

Third: Foo Fighters is a far superior effort for Grohl. He was BORN to be a front man, and would have been miserable as the cloaked in shadow drummer. It crosses that bridge that is key for real, wide-spread success: I have all of their albums, AND SO DO MY CHILDREN.

Four: Cobain wasn't an anything god. He was a cult leader, with an astute tap into the collective psyche of our generation at that one moment in time. He was perceptive, and that's why we all adored him. And that's why he blew his brains out.

Five: I wouldn't, for all the tea in china, want to unlearn Nevermind. I can't listen to it all the way through now, and my kids can barely get into it, because those days are over, but at that moment in 199something, that album Changed My Life. It defined a crucial moment in my world, in most of our late-teen worlds, and it soundtracked it in the most perfect, glorious sort of way. I don't think it was overrated at all; it just doesn't transcend time. That album will only be what it was for US, sort of like the Woodstock experience. Ever listen to Woodstock recordings? AWFUL. But it meant something at the time. Nevermind defined you at that moment in your Jeep, just like it defined me at that moment, alone in my mother's house, packing everything I could into 3 backpacks and leaving everything I knew behind to move to Colorado. I don't WANT to shake that baggage. I want to have a cd I can out on and remember, with perfect clarity, what 16 was. I'm going to need that in a few years when I HAVE 16 year olds.

Sixithally: Temple of the Dog. Greatest collaborative work ever.

Seventh, and final: please send alektra yellow ledbetter. The Daughter single version. We have to bring her to the church of Vedder.

Posted by: Mr Lady at December 9, 2009 10:28 AM

I think the thing about Nirvana is not what they sounded like, but how they sounded when compared to other things that were going on musically at the time. While you may have been into the grunge thing, when Nevermind came out, most of the nation was wondering what would replace hairbands. Music had been fun and smiley and big, and many people were getting frustrated with that and looking to be represented by a different sound. Remember, Nevermind wasn't the number one seller that Christmas; Michael Jackson's Bad was. And it then became the number 1 returned so that kids could get the money to by Nevermind. Yes, other things were happening. I was a bib NIN fan at the time, but to me Nirvana had a new sound and a new message. Musically was it great? I'll leave that to people smarter than me to discuss. But, it was different, and it did change the course of popular music. So did NWA’s Straight Outta Compton. Again, it may not have been profound in a musical sense, but it did change society’s perceptions, and the course of musical history.

Posted by: Stephanie at December 9, 2009 10:29 AM

I'm like you. I was more moved by Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam than by Nirvana. I didn't hate Nirvana but I felt my teenage angst was better served by AIC (and yes, I'm still bitter that Layne went into rehab two weeks before I was supposed to see them in concert).

Coldplay's A Rush of Blood to the Head. What a disappointment. It has some really good songs on it but they will never, ever reach the quality of Parachutes.

Posted by: Sparkle Pants at December 9, 2009 10:33 AM

When Nevermind came out, my friends and I had been obsessively listening to an illicit demo version that some friend of a friend of a friend had gotten from some guy who knew someone in the music business. The demo was less polished and produced and more raw, and everything we wanted music to be. No, Kurt Cobain wasn't a guitar god, but everything about that album worked. Seriously, just thinking about that time, us driving around Boston at night, also smoking, although for me it was Marlboros, and listening to that tape over and over again, makes me happy. It was a magical time in my life, and music was such a huge part of it.

That's not to say that your criticisms aren't valid, and I probably like Bleach better too. Actually, the two Nirvana songs I'm most likely to listen two now are covers from Unplugged -- Lake of Fire and Where Did You Sleep Last Night. Well, except for right now, because you've inspired me to go listen to Nevermind again :)

Posted by: bad penguin at December 9, 2009 10:55 AM

As much as I agree with you on many many things, on music we part ways. Which is fine. How boring if everyone agreed on everything.

I get Nirvana. I've never "gotten" Pearl Jam (Vedder always sounds like he's yelling, at least on live things -- and, as much as I love Springsteen, he's gone through similar periods where everything he sings on stage sounds like he's singing with the same voice). I don't think Cobain was a god of any sort, and I don't think he's claim anything different. Their music wasn't about technical abilities, it was about a certain angst and pain and feeling. How well that ages is a different question. Foo Fighters are good, enjoyable even, but I like a little more edge to my music. (Though saying that I can immediately contradict myself with all sorts of examples from the Beatles to Paul Simon to ... well, you get the picture.)

I like the idea of unlearning something, and fully agree that it's not possible. Which is what makes it so damn annoying that "those people" played particular albums over and over in dorms across the country. When you've heard Led Zeppelin IV too many times, it's hard to go back and really appreciate it....

Rock on!

Posted by: pvz at December 9, 2009 11:16 AM

"Nevermind" ruined my life. I was a happy, Bon Jovi-Warrant-and-Great White-lovin' 17-year-old when Nevermind came out and slammed the door on rock as we knew it. I hate grunge music. It's downer music to me. I don't connect with it; I don't understand that rage, that feeling of being outside the circle.

On the other hand, I *love* Mother Love Bone. I don't really consider them grunge, though. In fact, the first time I heard of Pearl Jam, my friend was telling me that Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard were in this new band. LOL

"Nevermind" is my number one most overrated album, period.

Posted by: Brooke at December 9, 2009 11:36 AM

I could have written this exact same review of is damn near an exact replica of my thoughts on the album, both then and now.

What is a bit more freaky, is your description of the 89' Jeep Cherokee and the tiny window and the camel light hanging out. My boyfriend (now my husband) drove an 89' Cherokee (dark green) and we both would hang our Camel Lights out the tiny window, cracking it open as little as possible, since the Jeep's heater was shot. We were a few years off from you though, he didn't get that Jeep until we were sophomores/juniors in college (1994-95).

What do I wish I could unlearn? Back in high school, I dated a guy that though Thrash/Death Metal was the shiznit. He would drive around listening to music that was played so loud and so damn fast, that you couldn't tell what on earth they were screaming about or what they were playing. It was horrible. I remember one of the band's names - Death Angel. I wish I could forget ever listening to that band or the horrible train-wreck of a cassette they produced.

Posted by: Jen at December 9, 2009 12:11 PM

PS: Have you heard about Dave Grohl's new thing? I read about it last week. Dave on drums, Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age (LOVELOVELOVE) up front, and John Paul Jones on bass. They're called Them Crooked Vultures.

Posted by: Elise at December 9, 2009 1:04 PM

I was getting my music pretty much from MTV when Nirvana broke; at the time Pearl Jam was still relegated to being played on the midnight to 3AM rotation, and the rest of the world was a mix of hip hop and the last death throes of the 80s hair bands. And then came Nirvana, and that kicked the door in for Grunge to become "the thing", and suddenly all these other bands that you never heard of were put into heavy rotation, and the world did change ( hip hop continued forward into gangster rap, a different story altogether, and the 80's at long last passed into that great night ).

I find that I've rediscovered quite a bit of old music that came from a time in my life that I had wanted to forget, and enough time has gone by that it is starting to feel fresh(ish). Could also be that I have the memory of lobotomized lab rats on forget-u-all, but I digress.

I wish I could hear Pink Floyd again for the first time, Delicate Sound of Thunder album. It seemed that with every song a new world was opened up to me.

Posted by: metawizard at December 9, 2009 5:38 PM

I don't know that I want to unlearn as much as forget something. More specifically, post "And Justice for All" Metallica. I know people love the Black Album and that it had "hits" on it but for me, that album was the end of the band.

Are they musical geniuses, no. Are they all megalomaniacal, self-obsessed ass clowns, probably. However, Master of Puppets is still a great disc and the beginning of my foray into music that existed outside of the top 40.

Posted by: JJ at December 10, 2009 8:43 AM

Ok, well, I was 22-23 when grunge hit. It was, part of that whole thing when all of my favourite bands were all of a sudden becoming popular and I wasn't too sure how I felt about it. It was university and obviously popular and cool couldn't go together. (To some extent I still feel this way today.)

We'd been talking about Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. They were acceptable. Pearl Jam, we all professed to not being into, however... I know for a fact we all had Ten. Nirvana only gained cred, as I recall, with In Utero -- prior to that it was just well a Zeppelin rip off. (Yes, I said that.)

I only got back into PJ after a show in 2005. Then did a retrospective of the '90s. Part of me is glad I could just absord it without the hype.

But I still don't own Nevermind.

Got pick up Klosterman.

Posted by: Nat at December 10, 2009 9:21 PM

I don't know about most overrated album, but I definitely think Smells Like Teen Spirit is the most overrated song ever. I don't know how many times I watched those countdown shows on VH1 or whatever-100 Best Songs Ever, I love the '90s, etc.-and Smells Like Teen Spirit was always the BEST SONG EVER IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD, and then I would want to hurl things across the room. Because: Why? I so never got it.

Posted by: Dreamybee at December 13, 2009 5:15 AM