I have always admired Nirvana, but to me their music has been associated with a specific time and place. I was eleven when Nevermind exploded -- I first saw the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video on a Saturday morning Nickelodeon variety show. I dutifully ordered the album via the BMG record service (with seven others for a pretty penny) and wore it out. I tried to like In Utero, but could rarely survive longer than "Rape Me." Kurt Cobain shot himself when I was in eighth grade. I remember my friends acting shocked and saddened, but we were too young to fathom what had happened. MTV Unplugged in New York dropped when I was in high school. By then I had long moved on, but Unplugged became on obsession. I used to play it before going to bed. The album made me feel deeply sad and safe at once, much like R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People. That was no coincidence.
Since then I've listened very little to Nirvana's music. It just seemed too familiar, and I could never separate it from time and place. Now comes the release of Nirvana's much-bootlegged 1992 Reading Festival performance. I've been listening to in on repeat since I bought it on Tuesday. It is a revelation.
Live at Reading reveals the band not only at full-peak, but rambunctious and almost gleefully in control of their power. The material spans Bleach to a few early versions of songs from In Utero, with a couple of choice b-sides and covers thrown in. So in essence, it spans their entire career. Unlike the surprisingly inert live compilation From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, these live versions seem definitive. Moreover, they recast the band's music and provide a freshness an album listen can't.
I've now gone back and re-listened to all of Nirvana's records, and only now do I understand the band's legacy. The best songs are incredible, the average songs are great, and there really aren't any bad songs (at lease not beginning with Nevermind). So here I present a quick album by album reassessment, including the b-side collection Incesticide and Unplugged in New York.
Bleach is not a landmark first record. Like Radiohead's Pablo Honey, it's a slight album that has really good moments. "School," "About a Girl," "Negative Creep," and "Blew" are as good as anything off of Nevermind. The rest of the album merely points to what the band would achieve with their next record.
It's common to hear music snobs grumble about Nevermind's shiny production. Yet Butch Vig's production tempers the fuzz of Cobain's guitar, making Nevermind almost a really hard power pop record. Approached from that perspective, Nevermind is a triumph. What's most striking is the beauty of the songs' melodies. Cobain wrote lovely music, amplified. (This becomes most obvious on Unplugged, where the songs are de-amplified.)
Incesticide is a wonderful mixed-bag of b-sides and covers. It shows Nirvana's playful side, which is largely absent from their proper albums. "Sliver," "Been a Son," and "Aneurysm" are awesome, and it's a little surprising that they never made the cut. There are a few Vaselines covers that punch up what were twee numbers in the Vaselines' hands. The rest of the material is what you would expect of outtakes: interesting curios that deserve to be heard.
In Utero has aged well, and it's aforementioned "difficulty" has softened a bit for me. Except for a couple of the squawking later tracks, the album is roundly fantastic. However, Steve Albini's production is as stark as ever, making it a bracing listening experience. Notably, "Heart Shaped Box" and "All Apologies," the album's two best tracks, were remixed by Scott Litt (R.E.M.'s go-to for almost a decade). They are also the album's best-sounding tracks. Still, of Nirvana's three studio albums, In Utero remains their most powerful and exciting.
MTV Unplugged in New York
This is still my favorite Nirvana record, and it may be their best. Half of the tracks are covers, and they are what make the album shine. Nirvana's version of each of the six cover songs is better than the original. That these versions were all performed live is a bit remarkable. As for their own songs, "All Apologies" is even more heartbreaking, while "Dumb" works much better as an acoustic track. And then there's the Lead Belly cover "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," a song so wrenching that I still catch my breath at its howling climax. This is not a live album; it is the acoustic record Nirvana was always meant to make.