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AFTER NIRVANA
Show airs on Saturday 3rd April 2100 - 2200
Presented by Steve Lamacq


Nirvana
Radio 2 marks the tenth anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death. Hear this programme again for seven days after transmission.
THE ESSENTIAL ALBUMS

Bleach (1989) - listen nowBLEACH (1989) - listen now
Recorded for just 600 dollars over a matter of days, Bleach captures Nirvana at a formative stage, still indebted to the murk that became known as grunge, yet not quite finding their voice as songwriters. But through the grimy, sludgy mega-chords, Kurt's songwriting skill shines through, particularly on the minor-key ballad About a Girl, written about his girlfriend Tracy Marander. He was profoundly unsure about including a song with such a tender melody on the album. On the day he penned the track he claims to have listened to Meet The Beatles repeatedly to put him in the right frame of mind. This contrasts with the rest of the album, which is a dense churn of noise. Anecdotally, this song is said to be a parody of the Seattle grunge scene, written after a gig in Seattle which he said felt like being at school again. It's the hypnotic repetition of the lyrics, which amount to about ten words in total, that make it so powerful. The cover of "Love Buzz winds up being one of the highlights because this gives a true menace to their sound, thanks to its menacing melody. The rest of the album often sinks into the sludge, as the group itself winds up succumbing to grinding sub-metallic riffing. They're also in desperate need of a good drummer, which they'll find in Dave Grohl before recording their next album. Bleach is more than a historical curiosity - it does have its share of great songs - but it isn't a lost classic in the mould of Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish or Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted.


Nevermind (1991) - listen nowNEVERMIND (1991) - listen now
"Nevermind? The bollocks", proclaimed the NME's review of Nirvana's breakthrough album. Nevermind was never meant to change the world, but you can never predict when the zeitgeist will hit, and Nirvana's second album turned out to be the place where alternative rock crashed into the mainstream. This wasn't entirely an accident, either, since Nirvana did sign with a major label, and this record does have a glossy surface, no matter how humongous the guitars sound. Nevermind glistens and shines as only an expensively-produced record can - the drums are incredibly crisp and the vocals infinitely sharper than the murk of Bleach. This doesn't discount the record. Not only is it much harder than any mainstream rock of 1991, but it has depth. Nevermind is bracing because of the strength of the melodies, coupled with Kurt's mangled screams. The lyrics are cryptic when you can make them out, but the real meaning is in the feelings. Of course, side 1 track 1 is 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', the title coming from something an ex-girlfriend of Kurt's spraypainted on his bedroom wall (it said 'Kurt smells like Teen Spirit', referring to a girly deodorant). When they recorded Nevermind, they had no idea that within a year they would be one of the biggest bands on earth.


In Utero (1993) - listen nowIN UTERO (1993) - listen now
With mixed feelings about Nevermind's mainstream gloss, Kurt and Nirvana tried their best to trash the band's star status. Kurt was disconcerted by a story that two men had raped a young girl while singing the lyrics to Polly in 1991. Stardom was never supposed to be like this. So they hired Steve Albini, producer of the Pixies' classic album Surfer Rosa, to create a stark and uncompromising sound, closer to Bleach than Nevermind. In Utero, of course, turned out to be their last record, and it's hard not to hear it as Kurt's suicide note - the perfect setting for Cobain's bleak, even nihilistic, lyrics. Even if the album wasn't a literal suicide note, it was certainly a conscious attempt to shed their audience - an attempt that worked, by the way, since the record had already lost its momentum when Kurt died. It's an alienating experience, front-loaded with many of its strongest songs, then descending into a series of brief, dissonant squalls before concluding with All Apologies, which only gets sadder with each passing listen. Serve the Servants is witheringly bitter and self-referential, while Scentless Apprentice is possibly the most wilfully destructive this band ever got. Its best moments rank among Kurt's finest work, but they are the songs of a dispirited man, the dark, dark lyrics masked by dynamic tunes and noises. In Utero remains a shattering listen.


MTV UNPLUGGED IN NEW YORK (1994) - listen nowMTV UNPLUGGED IN NEW YORK (1994) - listen now
If In Utero is a suicide note, MTV Unplugged in New York is a message from beyond the grave, a summation of Kurt Cobain's talents and pain so fascinating, it's hard to listen to repeatedly. The combination of the choice of tracks and the spare surroundings that make it so effective. It's nakedly emotional, unintentionally so, as the subtext means more than the main themes of how Nirvana wanted to prove their worth and diversity, showcasing the depth of their songwriting. As it turns out, it accomplishes its goals rather too well; this is a band, and songwriter, on the verge of discovering a new sound and style. Then, there are the subtexts, as Kurt's suicidal impulses bubble to the surface even as he's trying to suppress them. Few records are as unblinkingly bare and naked as this, especially albums recorded by their peers. No other band could have offered covers of David Bowie's The Man Who Sold the World and the folk standard Where Did You Sleep Last Night on the same record, turning in chilling performances of both - performances that reveal as much as their original songs.

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LINKS

Profile on Nirvana
Facts, figures, reviews, Nirvana In One Minute and more.

Message Boards
Share your experiences of Nirvana with other listeners.
Nirvana on 6 Music
6 Music views the World 10 years after Kurt's passing.

The Masters of Rock
Take a look at Bruce Dickenson's 15 Essential Rock Albums.

Hear Nirvana in Session
Listen to Nirvana in session from the Archives of Radio 1.
DOC ARCHIVE
Info on previous programmes


Stuart Maconie
Stuart Maconie

Find out more about Stuart's Saturday show featuring The Critical List.

MR BLUE SKY
Keep the sun shining with Sold On Song's Mr Blue Sky. More
Jeff Lynn






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