Nevermind is cinematic. Kurt Cobain the actor plays many roles – twisted characters that are feeling hurt or strike out in violent moods. Some are gentle, some are intelligent, and some dumb. We already know that Tobi Vail was the inspiration for lyrics on “Lithium”, “Drain You” and “Lounge Act”.
Throughout Nevermind, Cobain role plays through characters that only share a piece of his true personality. Only through these “acting” roles does he execute messages-ones that seem to transcend genres and generations… a universal message that everyone can understand with just an extra listen.
There are two major lyrical themes here that crisscross and blend together forming ambiguous lines that feel both personal yet universal. Through the emotional struggles of recovering from his breakup with girlfriend Tobi Vail, we see a personal side, while Cobain’s new focus on the music industry around him fuels more of his societal philosophies. Much of the lyrics are self-aware and self-reflecting, and a bunch of the words can be construed or misconstrued due to Cobain’s complicated layers of meaning, wordplay and his sometimes mumbled vocals. There’s also an aggression that matches the music since many times, Kurt role plays as the vicious villain.
This is the major reason Cobain set himself apart as a lyricist. He could right in 1st, 2nd or 3rd person perspective and come to a conclusion that both revealed and hid parts of his true thoughts. Most alternative bands either write songs as the storyteller or from their own perspective. Cobain would dig deep into the role, providing throaty harrowing screams and mega-monster instrumentation. On Bleach, they was more succinct and straightforward, whereas on Nevermind, Nirvana were adding more elements to tell us about life whether it be musical or lyrical. Let’s take a look at this diverse cast of characters-some that Cobain plays, some that he addresses as himself.
Polly’s Rapist (“Polly”)
Cobain’s most infamous roleplaying example. He woke the world up by playing the role of rapist while eliciting pity for the victim Polly simultaneously. It’s not just a scene, but a true story where Polly does get away in the end- “she caught me off my guard/it amazes me the will of instinct”. But the sheer terror of lines like “I think she wants some water/to put out the blowtorch” and “let me clip/your dirty wings/let me take a ride/don’t hurt yourself” are staggering. The clipped way he sings brief 5 syllable-lines above is as if he’s out of breath while he’s talking, or he’s currently in the midst of the physical rape. Little touches like that are subtle, but that’s how an actor has to execute a role to be convincing. Add that to some tremendous eeriness in the melody, delivery and Butch Vig’s production at Smart Studios, and you get an incredibly memorable track.
Trouble stems from boredom. This folky blues could have caused a major problem had Cobain not made the lyric and perspective as obvious as he did. Kurt takes on the rare role of rapist on a rock record, feeling more comfortable speaking from this angle on the soapbox about rape and it’s the first time he really addresses sexism. Cobain is rarely explicitly political. Usually one must receive the message through wordplay and irony, but here with the stripped down musical trappings of “Polly”, Kurt’s metaphorical suit of armor shines bright in the dark lyric. Usually the suit of armor is to hide his own pain, while here, it hides that of a rape victim.
“Polly wants a cracker, maybe she would like some food” (fantastic reworked cliché), ”she asks me to untie her, and a chase would be nice for a few.” A misheard lyric can come across here: “cheese would be nice for a few”- that ‘big cheese’ does go well with crackers. Another possibility we’ve heard; “she would be nice for fuel” – as in, she can provide him with the sexual stimulation that will keep him going. This character is a mumbler so it’s unclear.
The Castoff (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “In Bloom”)
Here, Cobain plays the role of a man attending a grunge concert with other self-proclaimed losers. They tote guns, they bring friends, they feel comfortable with the lights out.
The pre-chorus’s “hello/how low” lines are sung like a drugged out hypnotizing mantra, the spidery bass crawls up the back of your neck until the throttling drums pierce through the skin, the biting guitar spewing poisonous venom; Cobain’s scream deafens you with pain, until you’re as destroyed as the self-proclaimed loser singer himself.
After the initial greetings, the main chorus brings the cast of self-conscious “castoffs” that nobody wants around – the mulatto, the albino, the mosquito and the singer’s libido all coming together demanding a live concert to begin. “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous” demonstrates the self-conscious nature of the crowd, ashamed if they look out of place concerning fashion, hair, looks, etc. The crowd is inspired to be “stupid and contagious”-following what others think is cool.
He’s in full larynx-tearing mode on the ‘a denial’ scream on the coda- a denial of being an outsider. The herd of sheep (‘Sheep’ was a possible name for the album) that goes to concerts can unite and no longer feel like outsiders once amongst each other.
The sheep herd theme continues, addressing the misinformed fan that likes Nirvana for their catchy loud/violent sound without looking beneath the surface. Part of the irony is that it’s absolutely catchy to the max even when singing along to “he likes to sing along, and he likes to shoot his gun, but he knows not what it means”. Here we have two songs insulting us and we love it!
This castoff continues his story, on “In Bloom”. Look at the two verses laid out together and we come to the conclusion that this wretched smelly man has children each spring to sell them for food because he could just have more children next spring.
“Sell the kids for food/Weather changes moods/Spring is here again/Reproductive glands”
“We can have some more – nature is a whore/Bruises on the fruit – tender age in bloom”
He still likes to bring his guns and use them for no apparent reason other than he really likes singing along mindlessly to Nirvana. Cobain’s ‘nevermind’ answer follows the refrain; “and I say, yeah”… this was the ‘nevermind’ attitude the album is named for.
The real Kurt Cobain appears for a cameo on the famous catchy chorus-to sing about Nirvana – “our pretty songs” and displays the irony against this clueless character.
The Untrusting Contradictory Violent Gunowner (“Come As You Are”)
This character is another scary one. The contradictions and opposites in the lyric like “take your time/hurry up” and “I want you to be as a friend, as a friend as a known (or old) enemy” show Cobain’s stellar wit, but also display confusion as to what he sees, not knowing what to believe. His opposites don’t arrive when he sings “and I swear that I don’t have a gun” on purpose. They are meant to be implied – he does have a gun. He tells both truth and lies-opposites.
“Come doused in mud, soaked in bleach as I want you to be”, reminds us of the Bleach album cover, but also proves the hatred is still alive though Cobain is faking renewed friendship. “Take your time, hurry up, choice is yours, don’t be late” are the confusing opposite clichés used to form a line about the ultimatum given. Though it’s one of a few songs inspired by Cobain’s relationship issues with his then-girlfriend, it takes on new meaning, and can be interpreted in more ways because of its lyrical layering. It seems Cobain may be thinking of the ‘uncool kid’ getting revenge years later on his school bully.
The Ugly, Horny, Shaved Head Religious Killer (“Lithium”)
While Cobain accepts all of the different personal problems that bring emotional pain, and settles on the fact that the singer is born with issues he can’t properly deal with, the bridge reveals the truth on the final line; “I kill you, I’m not gonna crack”. The ‘denial’ from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is combined here with the accumulation of pain to create numbness: to himself, his problems, and worst of all, to his murderous intentions. He can love you then kill you with no problem. The religious madman here is shrouded in mystery until the song’s bridge is crossed.
The Meaty-Mouthed Passionate Kissing Baby ‘Adam’ (“Drain You”)
This song took some time to see the radio, but when it was released as a promotional single after most of the major singles were done, this hit really big as well. It’s one of the most commercial tracks and the melody is a standout. The lyrics are fun to break down as well, though this was also influenced by his breakup with girlfriend Tobi Vail. “One baby to another said ‘I’m lucky to have met you’” is a classic opening line, which the song was based off of. “With eyes so dilated, I’ve become your pupil, you taught me everything without a poison apple” are more fantastic lyrics indicating an Adam and Eve relationship.
Even musically, Cobain continues the role as a baby, squeaking a rubber ducky, playing with a noisemaker and other various toys during the otherworldly bridge that cuts through the fantastic ascending riffs.
Jealous Policeman/Security Guard (“Lounge Act”)
“Lounge Act” sounds a bit more like the work on “Bleach” sonically. It rocks along without the new dynamics found elsewhere on the album. Another song about his relationship with Tobi Vail at the time, Kurt gets more and more pissed as he sings; building frustration brings out his famous scream vocals. It has a nice flow lyrically as well on this love song; the verses flow directly into the refrains. It could be applied to Kurt’s decision to date anyone he wants – even someone as controversial as Courtney Love.
Okay, a bit of a stretch being a policeman/security guard, but the lines “truth-covered in security” and “I’ll arrest myself/I’ll wear a shield” were on Cobain’s mind. The ‘shield’ is really an emblem that he thought Tobi would like-a tattoo he acquired to impress her. “Arrest myself” has more to do with halting his own jealousy than being a policeman.
The self-consciously written ‘how to write lyrics’ lyrics are probably the best part of the song. “I’ll start without any words”, “it’s now time to make it unclear and write off words that don’t make sense”, “one more special message to go, then I’m done, and I can go home”-along with great lines; “My mother died every night”, “the black sheep got blackmailed again, forgot to put on the zip code”. All these are astounding lyrics from a 23-year old. Misheard lyric: “In a dream my memory is stored,” transcribed as “in a dream my memory’s restored”. Trying to ignore the pain has made him numb to all seems to be the layered message-the denial.
A Homeless Man (“Something In The Way”)
Both this and another 1991 song “Under the Bridge” by Red Hot Chili Peppers go so well together. They both focus on a homeless character that lives under a bridge. This song sounds humble, mature, and sincere lyrically, musically and vocally. It’s a great way to wrap up a tremendous album, though Nirvana insisted on including “Endless Nameless” as a hidden track placed after this. The hums syncopating with the beautiful cello line soften the mood of the song’s imaginative lyrics, yet also enhance and darken them.
A hint of politics comes in the form of vegetarianism, rare in any pop/rock, but really its Cobain’s state of mind ‘under the bridge’, not his body. Though Cobain knew that at the time many alt. rockers and alt. fans would not be into softer songs, he still stuck two on Nevermind, and both showed that Nirvana now were attempting music that might not gel with their own community but were just as emotional as their brashest moments.
Lyrical interpretation is always flexible and while plenty of observations don’t gel with Kurt Cobain’s true intentions or inspirations, this art-these songs become their own entities for us to hear anyway we want. That Cobain could provide such provocative lyrics that resonate so well when he sings them and when Nirvana rocks hard or soft, is a testament to the writer and the actor in him. He knew how to shade emotions and hide in the shadows of these characters while giving them voices and inserting his own world views. Not many albums of the last 25 years have such well thought out lyrics despite some being written on the fly in the studio. Some songs do take a conventional route, veering close to Cobain as himself- “Breed”, “Territorial Pissings”, “Stay Away”. So next time and each time we hear Nevermind, these all-time memorable characters will awaken and have the forewarning that they may send you into a daydream or a nightmare.