Change (B)log

Reflections on the lyrics and melody of Nirvana's Nevermind

December 09, 2019

I was thoughtfully listening to / studying Nevermind the other day and writing reactions I had to each song. Here are those thoughts with a bit of organization. I’ll mostly talk about the lyrics and melody.

1. Smells Like Teen Spirit

I think Smells Like Teen Spirit for better or worse is as popular as it was because it epitomizes many of the group’s tropes in one song: extreme dynamic shifts, “power chords,” grand melody, word blending, indecipherable lyrics, extremely intense vocals. Kurt really reaches up there with the high notes and shows off his virtuosic form.

After having this song in my ear since I was 5, looking up the lyrics was quite a surprise. Kurt had a way of obfuscating words like no other. From what I can tell, it’s mostly about choosing certain vowels in important words to really “lean” into and have the rest of the sounds be ghosted. For example, in the famous “a mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido,” you mainly hear “atto bino squito bido.” Or how on “I feel stupid and contagious,” the main accents are on “stu” and “tag(e).” Kurt sings like he plays and instruments; if you were notating that classically, you’d put accents on those notes and make them long while the few syllables before it would be short.

The lyrical content here is especially good. In addition to the interesting ones above, you have thought-provoking lines like “here we are now, entertain us” and “load up on guns, bring your friends it’s fun to lose and to pretend.” As is common in Kurt’s lyric writing, this is mixed in with more ordinary ones like “and I forget just why I taste, oh yeah, I guess, it makes me smile.”

2. In Bloom

It’s funny to me that this song is mostly the chorus over and over. It also feels more anthemic to me than the first track. And it’s in a lower range where more people could sing along.

This song really contrasts tonalities between the verse and chorus. The verses are so dark with odd progressions. The chorus lightens with all-around pop sensibilities. The lyrics are borderline uplifting for Nirvana’s standards. Additionally, the chords of the verse start out with Bb -> Gb, which is a progression that feels very “determined,” and the chorus instead changes it Bb -> G, which sounds much lighter and more acceptable. The lyrics reflect that contrast as well.

3. Come As You Are

Isn’t it kind of interesting that the first three songs at this point talk about guns?

I really like how he transitions from Verse to Pre-Chorus with “Take a rest, as a friend, as an old, memory(/ia).” It’s smooth.

This song also features a typical Kurt pattern, using words and phrases that conjure very physical/biological/grungy imagery like “doused in mud, soaked in bleach.”

The form is also very pleasing. If A=Verse, B=Pre-Chorus, C=Chorus, it’s essentially AABABCBC. That structure provides a nice sequence for moving around three separate ideas in any composition.

Finally, also in Kurt fashion, he plays a solo on his guitar that is the same as the melody of the song.

4. Breed

In this song, Kurt took his technique of repeating a word or small phrases to the max. He does it in other songs — namely Smells Like Teen Spirit “Hello hello hello” and “a denial a denial a denial” along with parts of Stay Away — but never to this degree. After the 4th or 5th repetition of each phrase (“I don’t care, “I don’t mind,” “get away,” and “I’m afraid”), you almost forget what he’s saying. At that point, it sounds like an instrument, which again, is something that often happens in Kurt’s vocal style.

Those lyrics are relatively incidental. The pre-chorus, if it can be called that, has a few famous lines: “I don’t mean to stare, we don’t have to breed” and “we can plant a house, we can build a tree.”

The form is incredibly simple on this one: ABC ABC Solo BC

5. Lithium

Lithium was always one of my personal favorites for whatever reason. The verses are packed with all sorts of cool lyrics, including my favorite: “Sunday morning is every day for all I care, and I’m not scared.” Not all the lyrics are as loaded as that one but they all fit well in the melody, which I think was Kurt’s primary concern.

The last verse is a direct repeat from the first verse from what I can tell. This technique is something Kurt uses often to extend the song. I almost wish he’d be happier with a shorter song or come up with some more lyrics. But that’s his stylistic choice.

6. Polly

When I was first excited about Nirvana as a young child, Polly was a song that I almost felt comfortable showing my parents.

The way Kurt constructs melodies reminds me of the call/response, question/answer pattern: in the sense that you can often divide the words and melodies of a line into little complimentary groups. It’s evident here in the chorus. Even in the previous song, Lithium, you hear it in the verses.

I’ve seen small parts of Kurt’s journals. The way he jots down various groupings of lyrics makes me think he just kind of ideates one-liners for a while and then picks ones that sound good.

The chorus acoustic guitar rhythm is so consistent that its articulations combined with the repetitive lyric groups make me feel like we’re trapped in some loop and then suddenly exit when it’s over.

Also, I like how the single “Polly said” two-thirds of the way through combined with no strumming guitar feels like enough of a bridge, despite its brevity.

7. Territorial Pissings

What I like about this song formally is that every time the chorus comes back, it’s twice as long.

8. Drain You

This song is a favorite of mine lyrically. He does a great job of evoking all this physical/biological imagery. He would go on to expand this idea further in “In Utero.”

I think the second verse is interesting because it almost makes more “sense” if you rearrange the words:

Original:

with eyes so dilatedundefined I've become your pupil
you've taught me everything without a poison apple
the water is so yellow I'm a healthy student
indebted and so grateful vacuum out the fluids

Offset:

I've become your pupil you've taught me everything
without a poison appleundefined the water is so yellow
I'm a healthy studentundefined indebted and so grateful
vacuum out the fluids with eyes so dilated

For all the other musical reasons (the arrangement, “the scream,” “the steam,” sqeaky toys, fantastic melody), I think this is the strongest song/arrangement on this record.

9. Lounge Act

The melody of each line on the verse starts late and spills into the next measure. If you are counting slow, the flow is 341(2) 341(2) 341(2) (count it out loud and conduct). There is not a lot happening melodically on the first beat in this scheme. This means that without adjustment, Kurt wouldn’t even sing on the first beat of the verse. But he fixes this by putting a word there, almost as if it’s finishing up from a previous line.

Another thing that sticks out to me on this song is how he starts the 3rd verse (which again, is just repeated from the first verse). It sounds like he struggles to get up to that note for the word “truth.” It’s hard to sing that syllable high. But right when you think he doesn’t have enough power to get up there, he proceeds to sing the next few words (the rest of the song) with such command that it makes you sorry you questioned his ability.

10. Stay Away

Stay Away transitions well from the end of Lounge Act (with the tape slow down effect leading right into a snare part).

This song is similar to Territorial Pissings in the sense that they are both incredibly repetitive and descend into chaos as the song progresses. On the album, they (and probably Breed) function as the songs somehwere between Endless, Nameless and Smells Like Teen Spirit; they are closer to the band’s punk rock roots as opposed to the slick pop writing in all the other songs.

11. On A Plain

The form of this song is simple (AB AB C AB’) yet so satisfying. What’s funny to me is how short the choruses are compared to the verses. Yet every verse is imbued with:

Love myself better than you
I know it's wrongundefined so what should I do

To me, it makes it feel like this song is one big chorus interrupted by a bridge.

12. Something In The Way

I don’t really know what the lyrics mean, but they make me feel a certain way. This song is arranged really well. Butch Vig recorded it acoustically with an incredibly soft tone after Kurt was unhappy with the bigger production.

Like Stay Away and many other parts of Kurt’s songs, he makes extensive use of repetition — again, the first verse is repeated.

13. Endless, Nameless

I don’t have much to say about this song lyrically and melodically. To me, this song is an example of what Kurt took and hammered away with a Beatles chisel to make the sound for Nirvana.

Summary

The sounds of Nirvana were some of the first sounds I ever heard. My older brother Clay and cousin Dave used to listen to it (as did every kid in the 90s). After getting back into it after 20 years, it’s amazing how good this album still sounds: the lyrics are still fresh, the performances by all the musicians are great, and the production level is second to none. And I suspect 20 years from now, it’ll feel the same way.


Joseph Weidinger

Written by Joseph Weidinger.