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Near Wild Heaven

  Nirvana: Nirvana

 

Geffen, 2002

Rating: 4.6

 

Posted: November 8, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau, Editor-in-Chief

Recently, elsewhere on this site, Shaking Through awarded the 10-year anniversary re-release of Pavement's seminal Slanted and Enchanted our highest honor: a perfect five out of five rating. While I'm not as huge a Pavement fan as the author of that review, as Editor-in-Chief, I approved that rating. Both because Laurence Station has earned the right to express his opinions on this site, and because, despite my misgivings about the band, I fully accept and recognize Pavement's influence over the last decade. It wouldn't be at all untoward, in my opinion, to say that Pavement was to the 1990s what R.E.M. was to the '80s (except that R.E.M. had smash hit singles and huge commercial, as well as artistic, success in the '80s). The shadow Pavement cast over the indie-rock world is impossible to ignore.

I suppose part of my antipathy toward the deification of Pavement (and Stephen Malkmus in particular) is that we all know that there was another band that changed the musical landscape in the early '90s, and that band -- you do know I'm talking about Nirvana now, right? -- doesn't always get the recognition it deserves. Yes, that may be an odd argument to make, given that Kurt Cobain just made the cover of Newsweek recently, but it has merit. Because as much as many people deify Cobain, many more dismiss Nirvana's cultural legacy. They all have their reasons, to be sure: some are repulsed by the act of Cobain's suicide; some didn't care for his naked emotional venting; some feel that Dave Grohl's Foo Fighters have diminished the importance of what Nirvana did, becoming the very kind of band against which Cobain famously rebelled; some just hate Courtney Love; some just don't get the music.

Fine; whatever. But if we're willing to nod to Pavement, whose "Cut Your Hair" is the closest that band ever came to something you could describe as a hit, as being quote-unquote "important," then we ought to be able to give Nirvana its due. After all, Nirvana's impact was at the time undeniably more far-reaching. Slanted and Enchanted sure made a lot of writers at Spin magazine and deejays at college radio stations happy, but "Smells Like Teen Spirit" actually changed things. The visceral magnetism of "Spirit"'s simple, Pixies-derived riff, the well-mic'ed studio thunder of Grohl's stampeding drums, the razor-wire intensity of Cobain's scraped-raw vocals hit a very many people in the solar plexus in a way that hadn't happened, musically, in a long time, if ever.

Remember that brief, shining moment in the mid-'80s when we thought Guns 'N' Roses had delivered us forever from the horrible pap clogging radio airwaves? That didn't happen, because ultimately GNR bought into its Hanoi Rocks-inspired, hedonistic, streetwise Stones-ian image so completely, it became a parody, a cartoon, the very kind of bloated and self-important hype machine it was supposed to vanquish once and for all. But when the hype machine came for Nirvana and "Teen Spirit," a funny thing happened: Nirvana didn't buy into it. If anything, it was the machine that blinked: it created a whole new radio format to cater to the audience that Nirvana had built. Yes, lots of other bands -- many woefully and without merit tagged with the unfortunate and meaningless "grunge" label -- contributed to that, as well -- Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Alice in Chains, Nine Inch Nails -- the whole "alternative" pantheon. But none of those bands -- not even Pearl Jam -- was or ever would be big enough on its own to spark a revolution. For better or worse -- and the sorry wretch of a laughing-stock that "modern rock" radio, with its Nickelbacks and P.O.D.s and Creeds and what have you, certainly makes a strong case for "worse" -- Nirvana started something. GNR didn't do it. Pavement certainly didn't fucking do it. No one had done anything like it, when you get right down to it, since the origins of punk rock, and before that the Beatles. Nirvana did that.

And Goddammit, that's important. That's worth noting, whether you liked the music or not. Whether or not Kurt Cobain's vehement anti-star attitude and maddening descent into drug abuse disgusted you. Whether he bears the responsibility for the radio format that has allowed System of a Down and the Hives and the Strokes and motherfucking goddamn Nickelback to flourish. It's worth noting. It's worth commemorating.

And that's what Nirvana, the recently released "greatest hits" package, attempts to do. And because it's Nirvana, and because most of these songs did have a very real impact, I want so badly to be able to give it the respect Nirvana deserves and doesn't always get. I want to be able to give it that perfect five out of five. And dammit, I just can't. If this were a comprehensive box set, I could see that. A re-release of Nevermind, with or without new tricked-out bonus material, I could definitely do that. But this just feels too...slight.

Partly that's because while many of the songs on this compilation still ring with authority -- "Teen Spirit," "In Bloom," "Lithium," "Heart-Shaped Box," "Rape Me" -- a lot of the rest just don't carry the same weight. The early single "Sliver?" Good, but only that. "Pennyroyal Tea?" Not in the same league as its In Utero counterparts. The brand-new (to us, anyway) "You Know You're Right?" Yeah, it does simmer and growl and buzz with the patented Nirvana energy, with the same rawness of feeling and spirit that made In Utero such a wrenching and commercially brave departure from, and bookend to, the studio-polished sheen of Nevermind. And the glimpse of what might have been is compelling, certainly.

But it's not enough. And that's why Nirvana is -- much as Cobain, to his dismay, proved to be -- far from perfect. There's just not enough greatness here to fully pay tribute to what Cobain and his band accomplished. Because tragically, there just isn't enough Nirvana material, period, to draw from. And that sense of loss hangs too heavily over this disc. It's impossible not to listen to it with a glum sense of déjà vu  -- you know exactly how this story's going to turn out, and you don't like it.

As I said above, I'd stack Nevermind up against another album we've seen fit to recognize as a pinnacle of perfection: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and of course Slanted and Enchanted. But because that's the only truly great album Nirvana got the chance to make, and because the band will never have a full body of work the bulk of which we could weigh on the scales of pop-cultural history, Nirvana -- with its self-importantly solemn, stripped-down, "black album" packaging and frustrating reminder of a life and a career cut far too short -- is not, cannot be, the fitting tribute Nirvana deserves.

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Jan. 1, 2003: High Resolutions
Dec. 16, 2002: All I Want for Christmas
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Nov. 8, 2002: Near Wild Heaven (Nirvana)
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Aug. 20, 2002: King for a Day
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