The Nevermind You've Never Heard
The version of Nirvana's album that Kurt Cobain loved best.
Though the sound of Nirvana's Nevermind has moved many a critic to unfurl high-flown rhetoric over the years, what's not being talked about during this week's feel-good fest is how the album's sonics came to rankle Kurt Cobain to no end. "Looking back on the production of Nevermind, I'm embarrassed by it now," Cobain told journalist Michael Azerrad in the 1993 book Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana. "It's closer to a Motley Crue record than it is a punk rock record."
This wasn't a one-off comment, but something of a mantra for Cobain during his interviews from the period. His distaste for the album's radio-ready sheen comes up repeatedly in Azerrad's book: It's described as "candy-ass" or something he "can't stand." The best thing Cobain can say about the record's high-gloss sound is that it doesn't completely obliterate his ability to be moved by the songs. "When I listen to Nevermind, I hate the production, but there's something about it that almost makes me cry at times," Cobain admitted to Azerrad, in the course of worrying about whether the songs on the follow-up, In Utero, would seem emotionally checked-out by comparison.
Cobain's ritual self-torture over the commercial capabilities of Nevermind can be considered, then, as a foundational part of Nirvana lore. His very public dissatisfaction led directly to the band's choice of post-punk demigod Steve Albini as the producer—or, as Albini prefers, "engineer"—of In Utero. In the dramatis personae of the Nirvana narrative, Albini is the pissed-off yang to the shiny-happy yin of Andy Wallace, the major-label-approved "mastering" whiz who gave Nevermind its airplay-inviting varnish. (He cranked up the drums and the treble through compression and scrubbed some of the noise from Cobain's guitar tracks.)
Now, in the "Super Deluxe" edition of the Nevermind reissue, we can hear producer Butch Vig's original, pre-Wallace mix of Nevermind for the first time. This ought to be a big deal. Especially since the rest of what comprises the various Nevermind reissues can be separated into categories of Nirvana "rarities" to which longtime fans have become accustomed (not to say bored). Vig, who had a reputation as someone with a good ear for pop as well as for noise, had been the band's first choice to record their second album, even before drummer Dave Grohl had joined—back when Cobain thought it would be released on the indie label Sub Pop. By the time Nevermind was being prepared for David Geffen's label, Vig was already on familiar terms with its key songs, since he'd also recorded the demos that landed Nirvana their major label deal.
So it's strange to see Vig's original mix of Nevermind now being weirdly undersold—not least by Vig himself. A summer article in Rolling Stone, which promised a look inside the reissue set, derided the early mix as "a disaster." This assessment was propped up by Vig, who remembered: "I'd be balancing the drums and the guitars … and Kurt would come and say, 'Turn all the treble off. I want it to sound more like Black Sabbath.' It was kind of a pain in the ass." In addition to this self-diss, Vig's version—called "The Devonshire Mix" on this reissue set—is stranded as the third CD of the most expensive edition of Nevermind. This means it's being held out as a treat for the insane hard-cores.
Either way, this isn't the first time the whole Vig-Wallace mixing controversy has felt somewhat papered-over in the years since Cobain's suicide. Charles Cross' 2001 Cobain biography, Heavier Than Heaven, properly noted that Cobain agreed to Wallace's touch-ups only after a lobbying campaign by label execs, a campaign that proved to be a "difficult task." Then Cross quotes Wallace himself as saying "Uniformly, we all wanted the recording to sound as big and powerful as possible." (Well, OK then!)
In a twist so neat it feels scripted, the only person willing to stand up for Vig's mix of Nevermind turns out to be … Steve Albini. This August, on the (vibrant) message board for his Electrical Audio recording studio, the engineer wrote:
Seth Colter Walls is a freelance reporter and critic whose writing has appeared in Newsweek, the Village Voice, the Washington Post and the Awl.