This is the album Nirvana should be known for and the cause of several debates. Some say it’s better than Nevermind, while others don’t agree, but without comparing it to their previous release it’s just an amazing album; one of the best of 1994 and still one of the best today. It may not have as many hits as their previous release, but it shows growth in all the band members. It’s also their darkest album, both musically and lyrically. It may also be one of Kurt Cobain’s most personal.
With this album, the band decides to bring out their dirty, gritty edge. Every song sounds heavy and rough, as if it’s been dragged through dirt and mud. Also, the album is very noisy, but not in a bad way. It just seems that once the songs begin, there is not a moment of silence left. Even if there is no singing or main instruments playing, there is constant clicking, popping, hissing, and feedback going on. This could be what Kurt Cobain meant when he said he didn’t want the album to sound as clean as Nevermind did. Either way, it’s an interesting aspect to this aggressive album.
The opening song “Serve the Servants” is one of the most perfect opening songs I’ve ever heard. Not just because it’s epic, but because it introduces the listener to sound and feel of this record. The guitar riff during the intro comes crashing in stark and loud instantly grabbing your attention, but it also has this drunken, swaying sound once the song starts. And this type of effect is actually found in a lot of the songs. Another reason this song is so great is that it’s probably one of Cobain’s most personal. Here, there are references to the insane success of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with the line “Teenage angst has paid off well/now I’m bored an old.” There are also references to his family life, especially about his parent’s “legendary divorce” and his dad. The line “I tried hard to have a father, but instead I had a dad” is one of the most amazing lyrics from this song. Even you don’t know exactly what he’s talking about, you get what he means. Though it may not have as much energy as some of the other songs here, it’s still amazing.
The next song is where we get into the dark territory. “Scentless Apprentice” introduces the new, heavy, aggressive, harsh Nirvana sound. The guitar riff here is so fucking brutal. It’s the type of riff that punches you in the face and keeps you asking for more. It’s full of distortion and aggression while Dave’s heavy handed drumming gives the song its intense back bone. Everything is so furious that it sounds like every instrument and Cobain himself are being tortured to death. Aside from the sound, here we are also introduced to some recurring themes and images found throughout the album. Medical, hospital, and gruesome images are abound, like wet nurses, babies, semen, and fertilizing mushrooms. Honestly, I have no idea what the song is about, but it’s fucking awesome.
Nirvana manages to make another album full of awesome songs where every one is a hit. There is not a single disappointing song to be found. Even a song like “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” which is often looked over is still amazing. It may not be the most memorable song on the album, especially when you have the controversial “Rape Me,” on the record but when you actually give the song a chance it’s really good. Another underrated song from this album is “Very Ape.” It’s probably the most upbeat song from the album and there’s something about the looping riff that keeps getting higher and higher that’s infectious. This also seems to be one of their snottiest songs with lyrics like “If you ever need anything please don’t hesitate to ask someone else first.” And you can’t ignore the dark classic “Heart Shaped Box.”
This is one of my all time favorite songs by the band because it’s perfect. The somber guitar riff sticks in your mind as soon as you hear it and there are so many gruesome lyrics like “I wish I could eat your cancer” and “Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back” that makes this song a cryptic poem. There’s also this great droning bass riff that’s best heard during the chorus, showing how Novoselic was one of the most adept bass players around. This song is also successful in being catchy with its chorus of “Hey! Wait!” yet creepy with all the disturbing images strewn throughout. It’s also unnerving how vulnerable Cobain sounds when he’s singing. You can picture him sitting in a corner, hugging his knees when you listen to this song.
As mentioned earlier, their sound on this album is different than before. It’s not a drastic change, but it is heavier, dirtier, and more aggressive. The songs are also not as easy to sing along with mainly because you’re not even sure if Cobain is saying anything most of the time. “Tourette’s” is Nirvana‘s craziest, most insane, and energetic song in their catalog. Everything is so brutal here! And without the aid of lyrics, you have no idea what’s being said. Kurt is yelling and screaming so much that it sounds like his vocal cords are about to snap. But the harsh distortion and brutal vocals are also found on “Milk It.” This is another chaos filled song that pushes the loud/quiet/loud formula to its breaking point. The song is heavy, disjointed, and pretty trippy with how drunken everything sounds. It’s perfect for thrashing to.
But it’s not all craziness on this album. There are quite a few mellow songs that have more of a psychedelic sound and aren’t as brutal as the other tracks. The drug induced “Dumb” sounds like it comes from the 60s with the slow paced music and Kurt’s soft vocals. There’s also a hint of sadness found here due to the cello that plays in the background. It sounds pretty different for the band, but they manage to put it off very well. Another song with a psychedelic feel to it is the depressing “Pennyroyal Tea.” This track is pretty dark with its several references to abortion and with lines like “I’m so tired I can’t sleep.” The song only becomes more chilling in a live, acoustic setting.
Overall, the album gets 10/10. It’s an amazing album that is constantly overshadowed by their second release. This is the album Kurt Cobain wanted to make for a long time. It’s brutal, aggressive, harsh, and chaotic. Every track is amazing and shows how the band has grown as musicians and songwriters. There are songs here that have become classics over the years and others that are underrated. It’s a shame that this was Nirvana‘s last studio release because it makes you excited for where they were going next. If you haven’t spent much time with this album, do yourself a favor and give it another listen.