More than any other band, Nirvana re-energized and reinvented rock music in the 1990s after a moribund period when I thought rock had died. But although the grunge movement spearheaded by Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl together with fellow travelers like Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Bush, and Soundgarden was artistically strong and culturally potent, it also seems to have been a last gasp before the digital revolution killed the album and audience stratification made rock superstar artists and monster hit rock songs almost impossible.
The ’80s had felt like such a limp time for rock that I didn’t even recognize the change at first. In 1991 I was in a battered old Greenwich Village rock club (long gone now) where I’d spent so many nights in a cover band playing Beatles, classic rock, and Willie Nelson for East Village friends and tourists from Japan and Australia. Suddenly something startling came over the jukebox. My first thought: What’s this scream-filled take-off on “Wild Thing”?
But it wasn’t long after my first exposure to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that I was playing in another band with younger guys – and covering Nirvana. It quickly dawned on me that however bitter and sour these songs were, they were also brilliant. The shocking thing: Paired with a rare skill at writing truly original music was an honestly agonized front man, a croaking, charismatic/anti-charismatic young singer-guitarist who screamed “I feel stupid and contagious,” moaned “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black,” and howled “Rape me” again and again – and whose rhythm guitar playing, like Pete Townshend’s, obviated the need for a lead guitarist.
Songs like “Lithium” and “In Bloom” had melodies that had never been heard before in any genre, and chord structures that, while adapted to some degree from progressive heavy metal, had found a new home in songs full of real passion and pain, put across with perfectly raw musicianship.
This was a band whose sensibility extended from David Bowie (“The Man Who Sold the World”) to Leadbelly (“In the Pines”), and who could be as intense and convincing on an MTV Unplugged acoustic broadcast as at an arena concert. Yet, great as the songs are on the 2002 best-of compilation Nirvana, which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard album chart and is now reissued for the first time on vinyl (33rpm and 45rpm) and in several digital formats, they sound, if not exactly dated, then very much of their moment, for two reasons.
First, listening all these years after Cobain’s death (he died in 1994 at age 27), I’m struck by how painfully pinched his voice sounds – when, that is, he isn’t unleashing those tremendous howls that captured so much Generation X frustration and alienation. Taken as a whole, Cobain’s vocal persona is so unlike anyone else’s that it seems to locate Nirvana in a time zone all its own.
Nowhere is the singer’s pain more evident than on the grating bleats of the choruses in “You Know You’re Right,” the last song the band recorded, and one that didn’t appear on any studio album. The song is quintessential Nirvana, sharpened to a point of near-unlistenability.
Second, while the term “grunge” is vague and “alternative rock” even vaguer, they denote a naturalistic kind of style and sound that today’s electric bands shun in favor of (usually artificially) perfected and polished execution and recording.
The collection includes many of the best tracks from the band’s two “big” albums, Nevermind and In Utero, plus the non-album single “Sliver” and the MTV Unplugged versions of “All Apologies” and the David Bowie cover “The Man Who Sold the World.” “Love Buzz” from Bleach would have colored in a missing corner, in my opinion, but second-guessing best-of album choices is a loser’s game.
Nirvana’s studio output was so limited that a best-of collection seems almost beside the point – if you were a fan, you have the albums, or at least the last two, and if you were a completist you’d want one of the box sets with live performances, alternate takes, demos and the like. Still, Nirvana has sold millions worldwide, and now is a good time to get it in any number of new formats, of which Universal has given us a dizzying variety, so much so that I’ll quote the press release:
…45rpm double LP, pressed on 200-gram heavy weight vinyl and packaged in a furnace black gatefold sleeve with liner notes and a digital download card for 96kHz 24-bit HD audio; as well as a 33rpm single LP 150-gram standard weight vinyl edition which will feature a download card for 320kbps MP4 audio. Nirvana will also be released as a Blu-ray Pure Audio in high resolution 96kHz 24-bit and is available in three stereo audio formats: PCM, DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD stereo.
I received uncompressed AIFF files and, for comparison, the 33rpm vinyl. The digital audio sounds crisp and full. I don’t know if any remastering was done, but my old Nirvana CDs bit the dust years ago so I don’t have them for comparison. But the new files sound great on first listen.
Still, after listening to the vinyl, I didn’t want to go back to the digital, which suddenly sounded a little metallic, a little hollow even. Cobain’s wall-of-sound guitars and howling vocals, Grohl’s lo-fi-sounding drums, and Novoselic’s melodic, watery bass lines seem to benefit from the LP’s slightly thicker, woolier tone.
The vinyl sound, ironically, makes me want to half-take back what I said above about the music sounding like a time capsule. While Universal may have put out the 45rpm version mainly for novelty’s sake, the 33 is something of a revelation. Buy it and you get a download card for audio files anyway.