Friday, September 24, 2021

Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Soundgarden released great albums 30 years ago

September 24, 1991 was a great day for music. 

30 years ago, Nirvana released their second album, Nevermind

The Red Hot Chili Peppers released their fifth album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik

[UPDATE: I originally said Soundgarden released their third album, Badmotorfinger, on the same day — which is what Wikipedia said on September 24. But later, Soundgarden did a Facebook post admitting that they had caused the wrong info to be put on Wikipedia. It was scheduled to be released that day, but it was postponed to October 8, 1991 because the band insisted on changing the album's front and back covers. You can see the original cover art in their Facebook post.]

All three albums were commercial and artistic breakthroughs for those bands.

They're the kind of album you listen to straight through, not skipping any tracks, because each one feels essential, from the hits to the songs you might have forgotten about but are happy to hear when they come on (Nirvana's "Lounge Act," RHCP's "My Lovely Man," Soundgarden's "Somewhere"). 

Nevermind has been celebrated for bringing an entire genre into the mainstream and signaling an authenticity-driven reaction against synth-heavy '80s music, even though the album itself has been criticized (including by Kurt Cobain) for being too slickly produced.

Nirvana thought "Lithium" was the song that would break them into the mainstream. They never expected it to be overshadowed by you-know-what

Two features of this song make it stand out as one of Nirvana's best. One is the lyrics, which were unusually clear for Cobain. "I'm so happy, 'cause today I've found my friends. They're in my head. I'm so ugly, that's OK, 'cause so are you. We broke our mirrors." There's so much you can read into that word, "ugly."

The other thing is Krist Novoselic's bassline. While the guitar part in the verse starts at the bottom and climbs upward, the bass starts at the top and descends. He wasn't a flashy bassist who drew attention to himself, but he gave extra attention to this song. He also does some tasteful noodling in the "I'm not gonna crack" section.

The chorus of "In Bloom" is brilliantly self-referential in mocking the whole idea of a band with fans, while being more lovable than that concept sounds. "He's the one who likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along … but he knows not what it means …"

"Drain You" was one of Kurt Cobain's favorite Nirvana songs. I love how in the place where you might expect a conventional guitar solo, they instead do an eerie instrumental interlude with disorienting guitar noises and dissonances, culminating in a frenzied crescendo that leads back to the beginning. Grunge genius.

That same day, RHCP put out a 17-song funk masterpiece. "Give It Away" captures the essence of the band: gleefully sexual, deceptively simple, rhythmically infectious.

"Breaking the Girl" is an uncharacteristically acoustic Chili Peppers song with an electrifying percussion break (starting at 3:03). Chad Smith's propulsive drum beat gives a remarkable momentum to the song.

"Under the Bridge" is a haunting portrait of heroin addiction. I get chills when I hear the choir-like backing vocals start to sing: "Under the bridge downtown …" The beautiful interplay of the guitar (John Frusciante) and bass (Flea) at the end is worthy of comparison to George Harrison and Paul McCartney in the Beatles' "Something."

"Power of Equality" kicks the album off with an urgent note of social awareness ("American equality has always been sour"). The Chili Peppers' singer/rapper, Anthony Kiedis, was clearly self-conscious about this white band being indebted to many black musicians: "My lily white ass is tickled pink, when I listen to the music that makes me think." He makes an explicit call for racial harmony: "Death to the message of the Ku Klux Klan!" The song ends with an earnest lament:

People in pain, I do not dig it
Change of brain for Mr. Bigot …
Misery is not my friend
But I'll break before I bend
What I see is insanity
Whatever happened to humanity?

Soundgarden found their voice with Badmotorfinger, which kicks off with the frenetic "Rusty Cage."

"Slaves and Bulldozers" is a 7-minute epic that sounds like a fearsome machine, with staggering vocals by Chris Cornell.

"Mind Riot" is the relatively poppy side of Soundgarden.

"Outshined" defines the Soundgarden sound and attitude: powerfully heavy, and with a determination to get through life's dark moments.

Focus on the interlude that starts just before 3:00. On the surface, there's not much going on here — no key change, no guitar solo. But a gentle, introspective passage like this to contrast with the heaviness is the kind of thing that elevates a rock song, and distinguished Soundgarden from other bands of the time.