I probably first became aware of Nirvana’s Nevermind in my teens, but I was too snooty to pay attention to anything that played on the radio. When I was 18, I was listening mostly to krautrock, Philip Glass’ soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi, Eno’s Music for Films, and Miles Davis’ fusion albums . . . yeah, I was the worst kind of music snob. Somehow I heard about My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, and I bought it from an indie record store along with The Cure’s Seventeen Seconds. I remember the clerk telling me, “take it easy now, OK?” In a voice more serious than the usual polite checkout patter, and I thought, “what is in these albums?” I blasted Loveless into my head while typing stream-of-consciousness papers for a college creative writing class that really had no specific goals or assignments. That was half my life ago. I just now realized that the time I’ve been listening to Loveless has been exactly half of the time I’ve been alive.
Fast forward about ten years. One of my coworkers is a Nirvana freak. He keeps pestering me to listen to Nevermind, and I finally give in. After all, I’ve heard “In Bloom”, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and the rest so many times by now that I might as well hear them in context of the album. I play it for the first time in the presence of a handful of friends who were part of a now-defunct music listening club. It sounds exactly like I expected it to sound, and also like almost everything else on the radio stations that try to position themselves as “edgy” (There is in fact a station in my hometown that calls itself “The Cutting Edge of Rock”, and which plays all the Nevermind singles frequently. That cutting edge apparently doesn’t get dull ever!)
Unfortunately, the way I approach Nevermind is not as an artifact from a musical moment that has passed, or as an innovative, groundbreaking album so influential that it now sounds the same as everything else, or even as something that might have touched my soul, if I’d heard it at the correct point in my life. No . . . snob that I am, I’ve always considered Nevermind to be the album that got in the way of music culture’s ability to truly appreciate Loveless.
If you want to listen along to Nevermind and Loveless, here they are.
Probably the first thing that anyone will notice about these albums is that where Nevermind is clear, Loveless is murky. The instruments on Nevermind are given plenty of space in between; Loveless, in contrast, is a sonic blur, with many of its sounds not attributable to any specific instrument. The same goes for the vocals—nearly every word of Nevermind’s lyrics can be heard or understood, but in comparison, the lyrics on Loveless are anyone’s guess. Going deeper, it becomes evident that although Nevermind and Loveless are both characterized by a loud and grating sound, this sound is created in different ways on the two albums; Nevermind uses lots of power chords to reinforce the guitar line, meaning that the album is not really as loud as it seems, while Loveless builds up layers and layers of guitars. But both records have their quiet moments, too, with Nevermind frequently incorporating varied dynamics in a single song. Loveless tends to keep the dynamics constant in any particular song, with songs being wholly either loud or very loud, with a few quiet songs here and there.
Kurt Cobain’s compositions usually incorporate short, compact melodies over patterns of two or four chords. A good example is the song “Stay Away”. There are four vocal melodies in the song, none of them more than six notes long, which are repeated several times, in varied combinations, over the song’s basic chord pattern. This tactic is also used in “Breed”, “Polly”, and “On A Plain”; other songs such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” use longer melodic lines but employ the same strategy of interlocking melodic cells over a repetitive chord structure. In Loveless, Kevin Shields frequently uses very long melodies—the verses of his songs are often one giant melody line, snaking in and out of a complicated chord sequence (such as on “I Only Said” or “When You Sleep”). The album’s second song, “Loomer”, might have the most compact melody line on the album, and it is longer than the longest melody on Nevermind (found on “Smells Like Teen Spirit”).
The combination of long melodies, complicated chord patterns, heavy distortion, and blurred, out-of-focus sonics makes Loveless a vehicle for sonic experimentation, a cabinet of curiosities, an assortment of things that Kevin Shields found while he was playing guitar and felt like showcasing for the rest of the world. Nevermind, in sharp contrast, is designed to communicate whatever it is that Cobain wants us to understand: the vocals are clear and coherently articulated; the instruments stay out of the way.
And what is the message in Nevermind? There is certainly enough posturing in the album’s packaging—a baby being taught to chase after a dollar bill; Cobain’s middle finger brandished at his listeners. Vishal Mangalwadi, in The Book That Made Your World, says that Cobain’s music was “a full-throttled disharmony of rage, anguish, hatred, despair, meaninglessness, and obscenity” that “reflected the confusion he saw in the postmodern world around him and in his own being”, and that on Nevermind, Cobain “captured his generation’s loss of anchor, center, or soul”. I think it is hard to separate the music on Nevermind from the myth that has been built around Cobain’s public and private persona, and his suicide; Nevermind itself, taken on its own, does not seem to manifest the qualities that Mangalwadi finds. The music is, for the most part, upbeat. Loud, yes; abrasive, quite often; but mostly in a major key. The lyrics exhibit a sense of displacement, a confusion and a dissatisfaction with the world, but there is certainly not a reveling in, or even an acceptance of, the sad state of things that Cobain sees. There is an ironic detachment. Cobain is not celebrating the baby’s early indoctrination into materialism.
And what is Loveless about? I think “Loomer” is about a party? “While You Sleep” is a song about a crush? Um . . . next question, please? If there is any overarching message to Loveless, it is “music is its own justification; art does not need to be explained or defended. Look at the guitar sounds we found, and enjoy them for their own sake.”
Yet even though it fails at making a pointed statement, I find Loveless a more engaging and satisfying piece of art. Nevemind seems too superficial; it reveals the whole of itself too quickly. It contains some some amazing moments, though. I love the elemental simplicity of the guitar chords in songs like “In Bloom” or “Come As You Are”. And the chorus of “Stay Away” is one of the most emotionally brutal and direct passages in any song I know of. The way Cobain uses melodic building blocks to form his compositions in an additive manner is a brilliant touch, and lends his compositions an air of cohesiveness that the sprawling melodies of Loveless sometimes lack.
But Loveless . . . just has so much more going on. From the intense amount of overtones inherent in Shields’ feedback-laden guitar squalls, to the eternally-unexpected way his chords and melodies interact on “I Only Said”, there is so much for my ears to pick up, and so much to return to over and over again. Loveless always sounds fresh to me in a way that Nevermind does not. To be fair, this is not entirely Nirvana’s fault—they could not possibly have foreseen how their magnum opus would have inspired legions of copyists. Loveless, by not desiring to communicate a message, ended up not communicating anything, and got marginalized. I don’t want to say that Loveless is timeless in a way that Nevermind is not, but it sure feels that way. But the problem with an artwork being timeless is that it doesn’t belong to any time at all; “ahead of it’s time” means that it’s contemporaries might not even notice it. This is exactly what happened, back in the fall of 1991. Nevermind spoke to a generation. Loveless spoke to a few music aficionados, but barely got noticed by anyone else.
P. S. Rock music is so full of posturing that it can sometimes be easy to forget that the musicians are regular people like you and me. That is why I like finding pictures of famous musicians just being their normal selves. Here is Nirvana:
And here is My Bloody Valentine, taken backstage during the Loveless tour: