Michel Linssen/Redferns

Why Nirvana’s Nevermind Still Sounds Great After 25 Years

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib on the moment when rock history changed

In 1991, when Nevermind rattled loudly into the world, I was too young to know music as anything other than a vast collection of sounds, some of which made the people around me very happy. In a basement, or perhaps the back of a car, or any insignificant space with speakers, I first heard the now-iconic guitar’s collision with the now-iconic drums at the start of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and there was no revelation. I cannot claim to have remembered the faces of whoever was around, hearing what I was hearing for the first time. The world, small and new as I understood it, did not stop, or shift. For this, I wish I could repent. If I could crawl back into a single musical moment knowing what I know now, it would be this one — the one where, as a boy, I heard the opening moments of Nirvana’s revolution and thought nothing of it. We, anyone born in or after the mid-to-late-1980s, chase these musical moments now — the song, the album, the video that will change everything that comes after it. There are occasional payoffs, like the release of Beyoncé’s self-titled album in 2013. But, largely, we are staring into the abyss of all that has been recycled from a time before our own, and trying to build something memorable.

I am of the generation that became most intimate with Kurt Cobain after he was already gone: The kids who were old enough to start a journey down his path just before the path became empty, who shouted what few lyrics made sense in a time where we were too young to understand any, who watched MTV Unplugged in New York play on loop in the days after Cobain’s vanishing and marveled at how briefly happy he seemed. At my middle school, there was an eighth-grade girl who wore a black armband in the months after Cobain’s death. She would walk around the school with a small radio, playing the cassette of Nevermind in the hallways in the spring, until some teacher would inevitably take the radio away from her, promising to give it back at the end of the day. Still, in the mornings, Kurt Cobain’s voice would trail through the bay of lockers. As a friend, as a friend — and then nothing.

I recall Nevermind best in this fashion, played through a hall of lockers in the spring months after Kurt Cobain was gone just as I was getting to know him. Not in the first moments of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” playing in 1991, but in 1994, through the lens of generational grieving, and then as an immortal piece of art that I was close enough to touch. It was the first classic piece of music that I could look back on and say, “I was there.” Perhaps this was what my father felt at the fleeting brightness of Otis Redding or Janis Joplin. Even if you are too young to fully grasp the complete scope of their talent, it means something to be able to say, “I was there for what this person gave the world. I lived when they lived, and I am better for it.”

MTV Classic celebrates the 25th anniversary of Nirvana’s classic second studio album, Nevermind, in an uncensored mini-doc with exclusive interviews and rare footage. Watch below.

When I talk to people from the generation before mine, they often talk about how Nevermind signaled a changing of the guard in rock music. Some people still scoff and gripe about how it killed hair metal, as if that genre was built for longevity. I understand these takes, especially now, when I myself am hungry for the Big Musical Moment that sweeps through and changes a guard entirely, or at least forces musicians to punch up. But I think it’s important to remember that musical innovation is rarely about who invents a new sound. It is, more often than not, about who evolves an existing sound into something greater — sometimes softer and easier to consume, but still true to its roots. There is a sweet spot there, between evolution and complete surrender to the machine. For The Clash, London Calling was the sweet spot, while Sandinista! certainly wasn’t. For Metallica, … And Justice for All was the sweet spot. Nirvana didn’t invent grunge. Perhaps the first U-Men EP did, back in 1984, or the first Screaming Trees album that came two years after it. Nirvana weren’t the first to perfect the grunge sound or aesthetic, either, depending on how one feels about The Melvins or Green River. What Nirvana did with Nevermind was find a way to blend the natural pop sensibilities that existed in Cobain’s writing into the grunge blueprint, and then evolve it into something else entirely. I say “pop” now in a time when it is less of a dirty word than it was in the 1990s, when publicly declaring a love for radio-friendly music, in some settings, would pull forth the most dismissive sideways glances.

I am not saying that Nevermind is a pop album as much as I am saying that Nevermind, especially now, seems unafraid to distinguish the expected sounds of genre — a massive leap from the album that came before it, 1989’s Bleach. All of the main effects of grunge are still there on Nevermind: the thick, sludgy, midrange guitars on “Lithium,” “Come as You Are,” and “Something in the Way”; the rapid-fire drumming of Dave Grohl on “Territorial Pissings” and “Stay Away,” sitting at the intersection of punk and metal; Krist Novoselic’s low and heavy bass that hovered, like a consistent and slow-moving cloud, over every song on the album. Beyond the expected, though, is Cobain’s impossible and impeccable ear. His relationship with melody, here more than on any other Nirvana album, feels instinctive. The guitar solo on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is Cobain playing through the already laid vocal melody. It says, “This was good enough to sing, so it is good enough to play.” It is a simple moment in a wildly popular song, but a moment that speaks to the entire core of the album — an album that asks “Why not?” over and over again. Of course it's grunge. Of course it's punk. Of course it's also pushing its shoulder against the door of pop music and demanding a seat at that table, too. Because why not?

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

I know nothing of what it is to find fame torturous, or to want a career that brings you one thing, but to be so good that a world you perhaps never wanted bows at your feet. Of course, Nirvana was not a one-man band, and the work of Nevermind was the work of more than just a single architect. But it’s hard for me to approach any reflection of the album that doesn’t discuss the toll its success appeared to take on Cobain. I like Nevermind more than any other Nirvana album because I most love the album that makes a band famous, even if the intention was never to become famous. Nevermind feels honest in this way, even as I listen to it now and know that it skyrocketed Nirvana to the top of the charts, put them in a place where they were real-life famous: in cartoons, on lunch boxes, played in the suburbs. It feels impossible now. The album isn’t as lyrically dark as the one that followed it, 1993’s In Utero, but it is musically haunting despite its underlying pop sensibilities. If someone were to play this album for a room of young and unfamiliar people and tell them that this was the album that made this band a worldwide sensation in the ’90s, I imagine many might find it hard to believe. And this, at the core, is why I think Nevermind is special, a tribute to Cobain’s endless, nameless talent. The unspoken vibration underneath the album is that it exists, for me, as an album of love songs. These are songs about finding some small peace among some overwhelming confusion. Kurt Cobain says, “I’m so happy / ’Cause today I found my friends / They’re in my head,” and it’s somewhat funny, to hear that and only be envious of the calm that realization must bring. It’s heartbreaking to consider what it means for the writer of those words to have that calm stripped from him, in part due to the success of his writing.

There are two Rolling Stone cover images that I can’t get out of my head. Nirvana is on both of them. On the first one, from 1992, after Nevermind exploded, they are in a desert, long-haired and wild-eyed. Kurt Cobain is wearing sunglasses, his hair dyed a shade of pinkish red. The magazine is branding them as the “New Faces of Rock.” Cobain is wearing a t-shirt underneath his cardigan. On it are the words, “Corporate Magazines Still Suck.”

On the second cover, from January of 1994, the band is cleaned up. Novoselic has shorter hair. Cobain’s is back to blond. They are all wearing suits. Across the cover, in big letters, the words read “Nirvana: Success Doesn’t Suck.” A few months after this one, Cobain was gone.

I truly wish to stop the romance of the tortured artist, even when they have given us something brilliant to cling to after they have left. Nirvana, in seven quick and brilliant years, gave us a handful of albums, none as lasting and valuable as Nevermind, in part because of the toll it took on Kurt Cobain as an artist. I want to love all 25 years of this album, and I still do. I still find it romantic, brilliant, vital, and stunningly groundbreaking. Even if it never asked to be any of those things, I still believe it to be all of them. And I feel less guilty about that now than I did 10 years ago, or even 15 years ago. Or, rather — I feel less of a burden, or less of a duty to link the holding-up of this album to the death of the artist behind it. It holds up, still. It holds up beautifully.

I will not argue with you about Nirvana in the same way that I will not argue with you about the delights of raw cookie dough, or the beauty of the sunsets over any city in the fall. And this does not mean that Nirvana is infallible, though it does mean that I cling eagerly to that which, after years, still has not failed me. Dig what you dig, but as for me, I want Nevermind to be played for children who were as small as I was when it first noisily coughed its way through the speakers from the Pacific Northwest. I don’t get to pretend that I was there for The Beatles. I don’t get to pretend that I saw the birth of punk in some dark basement, or the birth of rap during an endless summer. And so perhaps this will be it for me, for all who are my age and younger. I will get to say that Nirvana existed and I was briefly there. And even after they stopped existing, they still existed, and I was still there. Nevermind is the echo that drags itself across the generations that knew it best. I am 25 years older, and I am waiting for a rock album like Nevermind to come along again to kick in a door and tear a room apart. To take a blueprint and draw all over it, alienating some, yes, but making everyone else follow. When it comes along this time — because I’m optimistic that it will — I’ll be sure to play it for someone young and eager. I’ll be sure to tap them on the shoulder if they become distracted. I’ll be sure to say, “Hey, you’re going to want to remember this.”

Stream Nevermind here.