The Seattle trio’s blockbuster sophomore album changed music and pop culture forever.
What makes an album truly influential? That it inspired the birth of new bands and shaped their sound? That its musical fingerprints can be found on the airwaves for decades to come? That its place in the cultural lexicon and conversation increases with time? Or because it was the catalyst of a pop flashpoint? Few releases check all those boxes. But Nirvana’s sophomore album Nevermind — released Sept. 24, 1991, 25 years old this week — does.
Nevermind was the release that toppled a King (of Pop), ending Michael Jackson’s reign on the Billboard 200 Chart with Dangerous. It killed off hair metal and sparked a cultural revolution across the globe. It was a musical about-face: Instead of the chest-beating, coke-blowing, women-objectifying macho rock star of the ’80s, Cobain popularized (or re-invigorated) the image of the sensitive artist, the pro-feminism, anti-authoritarian smart alec punk with a sweet smile and gentle soul. But, at first, Nirvana was just another band with long hair and flannel shirts from Seattle, WA, alongside groups like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, both of which had released popular albums that same year.
But Nirvana, who’d released their debut Bleach on local stronghold Sub Pop in ’89, had tired of the sludgy, down-tuned sounds of the Seattle Scene. They even admitted to caving into pressure to produce that sound on their debut, at the behest of Sub Pop label honchos, who wanted to push their sonic brand on a voracious audience. So, in what would become their hallmark style, Nirvana pulled a fast one and backlashed for LP two. They used Sub Pop funds to record demos, then shopped those to major labels — to, as they’d say, cut out the middle man. The band ultimately inked with Geffen offshoot DGC, at the suggestion of Cobain’s good pal, Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth. Nevermind is, in a way, a middle finger to the entire Seattle grunge scene. Hi, we’re Nirvana, we’ll do things our way, thanks.
Nevermind took Nirvana to an entirely different plain. It’s heavy, yes. It’s loud and aggressive, too. But it’s the songwriting and glossy pop production courtesy of Butch Vig that set this album far apart from its contemporaries. Cobain’s innate sense of melody was front and center; his punk, you-can’t-fire-because-I-quit ethos were in your face; and the loud-soft dynamics served as barbed hooks, drawing listeners into his world. The lyrics were personal, opaque, and often dark, but also playful, and this dynamic gave Nevermind a familiarity to listeners, who felt as if they knew Cobain.
But Nevermind wasn’t an out-of-the-gate smash. From Sept. 24 through Christmas ’91, the album slowly gained steam — thanks in large part to MTV’s constant airing of the music video to opening track “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It finally topped the Billboard 200 on Jan. 11, 1992, and once the juggernaut was rolling it, wouldn’t stop until Cobain’s tragic death in ’94.
Nirvana released only three studio albums in their short tenure, and Nevermind is the magnum opus and centerpiece — everything before it led to its creation; everything after was a response to its impact on culture at large and the members’ personal lives. Bleach led to the pop ambitions and gloss of Nevermind; its success led to In Utero, a more rough-edged LP that, Cobain hoped, would reinstate their underground cred and assuage fears of being “sell-outs.”
Nevermind is a masterstroke. Like much of his visual art, Cobain’s Nevermind is a musical collage: It’s grunge, the underground music scene, his parents’ divorce, childhood disillusionment, riot grrrl feminism, Beat literature, punk ethos, Lennon/McCartney-esque pop melody and songcraft, ABBA-sized sing-alongs, Cheap Trick anthems, and so much more. It’s highly personal subject matter from a 24-year-old man, packaged for mass consumption — and it worked on a scale Cobain never thought possible. Fans ate it up — there’s a reason Cobain wanted to originally title the LP Sheep — and the media, from CNN to MTV, Sassy to Rolling Stone to Time to Teeny Bopper magazines — couldn’t get enough.
Only a few artists have been called “The Voice of a Generation.” Legend has it that Bob Dylan once saw Nirvana play live in concert. “That kid has heart,” he said.Nevermind is that heart’s beat.