Through A Note Darkly: Being Angry with Nirvana's Nevermind

Through A Note Darkly is a weekly feature on in which contributor Chris Villalta searches for lessons in an album he's heard a lot about, but has never heard in full before

As it did with many people in the 90s and will with many people in the decades following this post, the angst on Nevermind defined me for a time, the keywords being for a time. I of course have moments where I’m back in the same headspace that allowed me to tear my voice and rattle my brain along to the distorted palm mutes of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but most of the times the song finds its way into my ears I nod along to the memories of a me who believed in the doctrine communicated through its mixture of gibberish (“A mulatto, an Albino/A mosquito, my libido”) and absolute clarity (“And I forget just why I taste/Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile”). It's a mixture of nihilism (nothing matters, why say anything) and hope (something might matter, let’s say something). The frustration I have with the album, however, is how it stands as evidence for how frustration demands to be communicated in a way that refuses to be understood. Because it is so difficult to understand what Nirvana was saying on this record, so difficult to see what they were angry about, it is a record anyone can plug into. The universality of a pissed off and occasionally depressed record stands as proof that one of the few things the world can agree on is how pissed off and sad we are. The trouble, however, comes when we don’t know what we are pissed off and sad about.

I compare Nevermind to the number one comedy podcast on iTunes, The Joe Rogan Experience. It is a podcast I listen to on occasion and am always amazed in how easily anyone on any side of a political debate can find something to rally for, can find a way to morph the conversations into something that supports their personal beliefs. Like Nevermind, it is moments of silly jokes mixed with interpretive statement all served on a platter of frustration. There are moments like the start of “Territorial Pissings” where a call for love is mocked while anyone can deduce after one listen of “Something In The Way” that love is all that’s needed.

There were times where Nevermind felt like frustration for frustration sake, as if there’d be no identity if they weren't angry. There are memories I look back on of a teenage me angry for anger’s sake. That me could absolutely relate to Nevermind, but as I said, it was a phase. Having heard In Utero, it could be argued that Nevermind would have also been a phase for Nirvana the way Appetite for Destruction seemed to be a phase for Guns N’ Roses considering the direction Use Your Illusion went. Perhaps the amount of blind rage seen in the current political climate, rage I have participated in, will also be a phase and clarity will be found.