Unlike most members of the Important, Era-Defining Albums Club, Nirvana’s Nevermind isn’t particularly innovative. It didn’t invent a new vocabulary for lyrics, or push the music forward in any real way—Kurt Cobain even gave the Pixies credit for the “quiet verse/loud chorus” formula the album popularized. Nevermind is merely an excellent guitar-rock album whose importance lies in the context of the time it was released: In September 1991, this kind of music simply wasn’t being made or heard in the mainstream of pop culture. And this is something newcomers to Nevermind can still appreciate, because 20 years later, the album’s combination of righteous countercultural fury and carefully constructed hooks is still a rarity on the pop airwaves. After all this time, Nevermind still has the power to win hearts and blow minds.
The new two-disc reissue of Nevermind attempts to put the album in a different kind of context, augmenting the original 12-track record with 27 B-sides, outtakes, alternate versions, and live cuts that illustrate how Nirvana’s success wasn’t exactly the happy accident it’s remembered as. Coming off its unruly 1989 debut, Bleach, Nirvana was a purposely ragged but tuneful outfit that hammered all kinds of rough patches into Cobain’s indelible melodies. That band can be heard on early versions of future Nevermind classics like “In Bloom” and “Stay Away” (initially titled “Pay To Play”), which sound like sludgy Raspberries covers done in the style of Masters Of Reality-era Black Sabbath.
If Nevermind had sounded like that, the record would probably still live on as an underground classic, but it’s doubtful that it would’ve crossed over to heavy-rotation-on-MTV status. Cobain had fantastic songs to burn at the time—evidenced by toss-offs like the positively metallic “Curmudgeon” and the should-be hit “Sappy,” later released on 1993’s No Alternative compilation—but he needed slick packaging to sell Nevermind to the masses.
Heard against the noisy extra tracks—particularly the “boombox rehearsal” versions of “Territorial Pissings” and “Lounge Act”—Nevermind is as sterling as the first Boston album. (Cobain likened it to Mötley Crüe.) While the band might’ve wished at the time that Nevermind sounded more like Scratch Acid (or at least Dinosaur Jr.), producer Butch Vig gave the music the pristine treatment it demanded; songs like “Lithium” and “Come As You Are” deserved to become sing-along standards enjoyed by everybody, not just a select cadre of fans in the Pacific Northwest.
And what of Nevermind’s most famous song, the one that alludes to a kiddie underarm deodorant that’s long since been forgotten? It might be hard to hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with fresh ears, but the Nevermind reissue does succeed at putting Nirvana in its proper place, paying respect to the legend and the loud, irreverent, humanistic rock ’n’ roll band behind it.