Nirvana’s Nevermind 20 Years Later: Forever Changes

Can the album that changed everything change it again? Bigger Than the Sound looks back.

Here’s an abbreviated list of everything that’s happened in my life in the 20 years since Nirvana‘s Nevermind was released : graduated middle school, started wearing thrift-store corduroys, got my learner’s permit, lost my virginity, got my driver’s license, got in several accidents, named All-County keeper in the Central Florida High School Lacrosse League (two times), graduated high school, started smoking clove cigarettes, had an ill-fated long-distance relationship and an even iller-fated run in a community-college film program, moved out to attend “real college,” spent six years doing anything but, slept on a futon in Burbank, attempted to use 9/11 to reconnect with my ex-girlfriend, experienced shame from that attempt, moved to New York City, had dark times (aside from the Red Sox ’04 and ’07 World Series wins), met a girl, fell in love, got engaged in Reykjavik, got married in Dublin, recently discovered small black hairs growing on my earlobes.

Of course, reading back over all that, none of it makes me feel nearly as old as the fact that on Saturday, Nevermind will officially turn 20. Because as a kid who was alive and kicking during that era when all of a sudden “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was everywhere and Nirvana were the biggest thing in the world (or at least the suburbs), I can tell you that it seemed impossible that this music would ever age; mostly because everything about it seemed so of the moment, so important, so young.

That was, in part, due to everything Kurt Cobain was (unwillingly) on his way to becoming: an outsider icon, a generational symbol, maybe even a musical messiah. Like I wrote a few years back, on the 15th anniversary of Cobain’s death , he represented truth and the honor that came with never compromising. He had made it on his terms, and he was going to lift us all up with him. That’s the kind of stuff you believe in when you’re too young to know better.

Mostly, it was because Nevermind ripped up the mainstream and instantaneously made everything else out there seem passé. (Guns N’ Roses? Please. They were making “trilogy” videos with supermodels and dolphins. Metallica? They were cramming orchestras on their albums.) And it did so without an ounce of intent. The opening riff of “Teen Spirit,” the snarl of “In Bloom” ‘s chorus, the weird take of the Youngblood’s “Get Together” tacked onto the beginning of “Territorial Pissings” (and the hyperkinetic hyperventilation that follows), the sneering sentiment of “Drain You,” the guttural growls of “Stay Away” … all of it seemed to have happened almost by accident, because, surely, no band was capable of doing it willingly.

Lil Wayne shared his vivid memories of watching the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video as a kid.

In short, Nirvana sounded like nothing I’d ever heard, mostly because I was 13. But then, almost as if it was their duty (or at least Kurt’s), they kept leading me in further expanding circles, talking up the wonders of Shonen Knife and the Melvins, Daniel Johnston, Bikini Kill. I discovered the Breeders because Cobain said he liked them, and then, by proxy, discovered the Pixies too (backwards, I know; I was a weird kid, music-wise ). Nevermind made me want to seek new music, to listen to stuff that wasn’t getting played on the radio (or MTV). So, in that regard, yes, it changed my life. Because it connected me to rock music in a deep, personal way, which, in a lot of ways, has led me to right here, right now.

You can see why it’s so unfathomable that the first album that changed my life (not to mention the lives of a whole lot of other folks) is turning 20 this weekend. Of course, the beauty of Nevermind lies in the fact that, two decades later, it does not sound old in any conceivable way. In fact, it is the rare album that still reveals more with each spin. When I listen to it these days, I am struck not so much by the newness of it all, but how equally indebted it was to punk, thrash, blues and even the Beatles. I now marvel at the chorus of “On a Plain,” the harmonies on “Come As You Are” and “In Bloom,” the Chuck Berry guitar rushes on “Breed,” and the sheer amount of really good playing on the album. As a three-piece, Nirvana truly were one of the all-time best.

But mostly (and perhaps sadly), I find myself identifying more and more with the nascent pessimism of Cobain’s lyrics, both bold-faced (his sumptuously sneering admission that the finest day he ever had “was when I learned to cry on command”) and subtle. When he sang “Something in the Way,” he meant it both literally and figuratively; as you get older you realize that there’s always something in the way, and more often than not, whatever that something is seems nearly insurmountable.

In a lot of ways, I assume that listening to Nevermind as a 33-year-old in 2011 was a lot like hearing it as a 33-year-old in 1991. You’ve been around long enough to remember the good stuff, and you’re mortified that the bad stuff will never go away. And then, out of nowhere, you hear something visceral and vibrant, something so different and compelling that it makes you want to believe that maybe good can win out once again. We don’t even have to be talking about music right now.

Of course, in 1991, they were lucky enough to get Nevermind. I’m still waiting for the album that’s going to recharge the 33-year-old me. Maybe it’s just around the corner, maybe it’s not. Either way, I’ve still got hope, and that’s the essence of youth. Even if I’m old enough to know better.

MTV News reveals the Nevermind You Never Knew, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s definitive album with classic footage, new interviews and much more.