published: 3 /
Anthony Dhanendran reflects upon the various new editions of Nirvana's classic second album, 'Nevermind', which have been released to coincide with its twentieth anniversary
It’s been 20 years since Nirvana’s incendiary second album, 'Nevermind', hit the record shop shelves. To celebrate that anniversary, Universal is putting out two special commemorative versions of the album. The first contains two discs which contain the full album, the B-sides from its singles and a bunch of tracks mixed by Nevermind’s producer Butch Vig at his own Smart Studios.
There are also what are billed as the ‘boombox sessions’ which are recordings of Nevermind rehearsals made at the time on a ‘boombox’ in the rehearsal room, and some tracks recorded for a BBC session at Maida Vale studios.
The second, ‘super deluxe’ edition is limited to 10,000 copies and contains the first two discs plus a third that covers the previously unreleased ‘Devonshire’ mixes. That’s the whole album in the same order but mixed by Butch Vig to tout around the music industry. It also includes a fourth CD which is a live recording of Nirvana’s October 31, 1991 gig at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle. For good measure, the latter is also covered by a DVD which includes some music videos for Nevermind’s singles as well. Finally there’s a large book to finish it off.
To be completely honest, there’s little value in the Super Deluxe edition, excessively priced at £75, except to Nirvana completists, who in any case are likely to have much of it in the form of bootlegs already. The Devonshire tracks are interesting for their deviations from Andy Wallace’s final mixes, which Kurt Cobain apparently regarded as far too clean, but they don’t particularly stand up to repeated listening.
The Paramount gig is a great listen – it’s lively and energetic and truly captures the band at the height of their powers. But it’s also being released as a high-definition Blu-ray film and is going to be worth having in that format rather than on CD (it’s apparently the only one of the band’s shows that was recorded on film as opposed to video, hence the HD transfer).
The one to go for, then, is the normally priced two-CD edition. The album in its entirety takes up most of the first CD and it still sounds great. It’s been remastered but that treatment hasn’t subtracted from its rough-around-the-edges charm.
Having sold 30 million copies and become one of the most popular albums of the last 20 years there’s no real need to go through the tracks here except to note that they still sound fantastic and, surprisingly, they exhibit a real pop sensibility.
For all the shock the band caused when they broke through to the mainstream charts, this album is a pop one more than anything. The songs have proper hooks and, viewed from twenty years’ distance, they’re nowhere near as out-there sounding as they appeared at the time. Of course, that’s what the passage of time does to all music, but here it serves to highlight quite how good a songwriter Cobain was.
The Smart Studio sessions are interesting for being the recordings Vig made to highlight the band’s talents, and which eventually resulted in them catching the eye of a label with enough clout to extricate them with Sub Pop, the step that ultimately led to huge success. They were made with original drummer Chad Channing on the sticks, and they’re among the most interesting songs here. They more than any of the tracks in this collection demonstrate the stages the band went through to make the songs, and they show how elements were discarded when they didn’t fit (not least Channing himself, who made way for Dave Grohl for the finished product).
The boombox recordings are even more instructive though they’re not nearly as easy to listen to: everything else in the collection was professionally recorded, but these were taped in situ and as such aren’t mixed, produced or in any way clean. They do demonstrate quite how far the familiar finished versions of some of the songs came from their beginnings, especially the most famous ones: 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' and 'Come As You Are' are included in their taped versions and sound very different.
Both of those songs and some of the other boombox versions have been released before, either in the mammoth 2004 box set 'With The Lights Out', or in its sister release 'Sliver: Best of the Box'. For people who don’t have those, they’re worth a listen, but they’ll leave your ears feeling very raw.
Is it worth picking up this collection, then? If you want to find out the real story behind the songs, this is the way to do it, from the boombox tapes to the Smart sessions to the Devonshire mixes and finally the finished album, this collection has the whole thing down. If nothing else, it constitutes a fine instruction in how an album is made and how much difference production makes.
Equally, though, the original album stands up extremely well on its own, both against the session tracks and against pretty much everything that came after it and attempted to copy or beat it.