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With 30 million copies sold worldwide since its original release on 24 September 1991, Nevermind is as much a part of the classic rock canon as anything by the Stones or The Beatles, Dylan or The Clash. But then, you know that. It's been in the uppermost reaches of any best-albums-ever list for as long as this writer can remember; its legacy, its influence, is undeniable. And what its unexpected success - a then-optimistic label estimate of selling 250,000 copies was blown out of the water - meant for primary songwriter Kurt Cobain has been well-documented. The frontman had a troubled relationship with fame: on the one hand he'd been desperate for it, but on the other he missed his anonymity desperately. And we all know what happened in April 1994, leading to the end of Nirvana after just three studio LPs and less than six years as a record-releasing force.
Given the album's standing in the rock firmament, it's only right that its 20th anniversary is marked with a lavish repackaging, and sure enough a four-CD-and-one-DVD set has been assembled. Also available is a smaller, double-disc release, featuring the original album (plus a spread of B sides from its singles, and live versions of non-Nevermind tracks Sliver, Been a Son and School) alongside a collection of cuts from the band's Smart Sessions - when Chad Channing was still their drummer - and a number of ear-piercing rehearsal takes taped directly onto a boombox. This 'Demos and Sessions' disc is also part of the larger package.
The Smart Sessions are of particular interest - it was these recordings, made in Wisconsin with Nevermind producer Butch Vig at the desk, which attracted the attention of DGC, a label with the financial power to buy the band out of its Sub Pop contract. Encouraged by Sonic Youth, the label did so and the rest (as they say) is history. Channing's drumming on the takes isn't up to the standard Dave Grohl would later exhibit - but it's not so bad that the band would have suffered for his continued employment. One wonders how far Cobain and bandmate Krist Novoselic had to distance themselves from the drummer before he got the message. Non-LP tracks are here, too, with previously unreleased recordings of Sappy and Breed when it was still titled Immodium (sic) included. The boombox versions will be familiar to anyone who owns the With the Lights Out boxset of 2004 - awful on the ears, they're guides for the band foremost, and a nuisance for anyone else with a respect of fidelity. Whatever's lower than lo-fi, it never stoops further than this.
A full live set fills one of the remaining discs, recorded live at the Paramount Theatre, Seattle for Halloween 1991. This also makes up the DVD (certain clips were taken from the performance for the band's 1994 video, Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!), along with the iconic Smells Like Teen Spirit music video and those for the rest of Nevermind's singles. And the final CD is home to perhaps the most fascinating tracks: 'Devonshire Mixes' of Nevermind, running in the order of the final album, albeit without Polly and Endless Nameless. Butch Vig put these together as the album was coming together, so they're as much his vision as the band's - which, to fans, will be welcomed after Andy Wallace's heavy-handed mixing of Nevermind wiped clean some of its rawness. Cobain famously called the end product, despite his choosing of Wallace for the job, "closer to a Motley Crue record than a punk record".
Wallace would be vindicated by sales figures, of course. And Cobain and company would, for a while, be the biggest band in the world, as Nevermind conquered the Billboard Chart and then the hearts and minds of teenagers (and those who were still young enough at heart) worldwide. That it all came crumbling apart is, of course, a crying shame; but in these songs there are hopes and dreams, fire and desire. Cobain might have been portayed as a woe-is-me type; but many of his songs here are as bright as any successful pop record of the past 40 years. His pop-loving child inside ensured that the hard-edged punk-rocker he'd grown into never lost sight of a catchy melody or a winning hook, and it's because of this, and Wallace's gloss, that Nirvana made it. But, should you be keen to pick your way through the evolutionary process of one of rock's greatest ever long-players, hearing every fuzzy demo and work-in-progress chorus, now you've the chance like never before.
Before its September 1991 release, Geffen Records were hoping to sell 250,000 copies of Nevermind. But Nirvana's second album went on to shift 100 times that amount; and, since the suicide of frontman Kurt Cobain in April 1994, its surprise success has been acknowledged as a factor in its primary songwriter's tragic demise.
With hindsight it is easy to work out why Cobain struggled with the LP after its completion and release. In Utero, Nirvana's third and final studio album of 1993, was a difficult, abrasive record; compared to its predecessor, it's clearly the product of a mind pushed beyond its limit. Cobain would dismiss Nevermind, the follow-up to 1989's scrappy debut Bleach, as "a Motley Crue record" rather than the punk album that may have been initially intended.
The tunes are still ace, but there is an unquestionable MTV sheen plastered over the bulk of them. The band enlisted Butch Vig to produce the record and trusted him behind the desk. But when mixing went awry, Slayer mixer Andy Wallace was brought in to tweak the final mixes. While Wallace used less studio trickery than the average pop producer, Kurt was right: what now sits on 26 million shelves is definitely not punk.
Instead, it's an awesome mainstream rock record. Its four standalone cuts, including Smells Like Teen Spirit and Come As You, Are are exemplary, soaring rock singles which quickly became angst-ridden anthems for disaffected teens across the world. The quiet/loud formula that Nirvana made their own was stolen from the Pixies, as Kurt freely admitted; but Frank Black's merry crew never managed to hook listeners like Nevermind did.
The guitars are all crunched, phased and compressed to within an inch of their six strings, and the drum sounds are predictably accountant-tight and brickie-tough. Lyrically, aside from Polly, Nevermind rarely goes beyond woe-is-me or the cryptic: witness On A Plain's "The black sheep got / blackmailed again / forgot to put / on a zip code".
But even the occasional piece of nonsensical wordplay couldn't hide the beguiling, revelatory side of Cobain's writing. The aforementioned Polly is about a rapist, while Kurt said Something in the Way was about sleeping rough - although friends of his have since denied he ever did.
And there were Kurt's vocals. By turns haunted and hurting, caged and desperate, it's his scuffed, torn diary of a voice that you remember after the guitars have faded. Ultimately it's his fraying presence that ensures that Nevermind is a flawed classic, but a classic just the same.