Seventeen years ago today, Kurt Cobain took his life. Even though it’s been nearly two decades, it’s still difficult to know what to say about something like this. Attempting to tease meaning out of the tragedy of his suicide or philosophizing about the burden of genius ultimately seems empty.
Instead, let’s focus on the reason so many people love and commemorate Cobain: his music. Entertainment Weekly has been around since 1990, which means that aside from Nirvana’s Sub Pop debut, Bleach, we have archived contemporary reviews of all their albums. Here was what we had to say about the major releases from the nineties’ most revered, beloved, and imitated band.
“The problem with current college-radio rock is that most so-called alternative bands desperately want to sound normal. On their collar-grabbing second album, and their first for a major label, the Seattle trio Nirvana never entertain that notion.”
“Nirvana may not stand a chance of selling anywhere near as many records as Guns N’ Roses, but don’t tell Cobain; you never know how he’ll react.” —David Browne, Oct. 25, 1991 [NOTE: You might actually be surprised-slash-disappointed to learn that statement still holds true—worldwide, Guns N’ Roses have sold more records than Nirvana. Also, this write-up originally ran far below a review Kid ‘N Play’s long-forgotten Face the Nation album.]
“‘Dive,’ a 1988 pile driver that kicks things off, embodies everything wonderful about Nirvana: the one-two-three punch of thudding guitar riffs, rubbery bass lines (Chris Novoselic [sic] is the band’s unheralded linchpin), and Cobain’s lozenge-craving roar fighting to be heard through layers of boredom and rage, which all combine to form something both cathartic and moving. For a toss-off, Incesticide has plenty of those moments.”
—David Browne, Dec. 18, 1992
On In Utero
“In Utero can’t hide what was clear from Nevermind—that Cobain writes terrifically punchy songs and that the band ravages them into beautiful, brutalizing clatter. Some of them, like “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” and “Pennyroyal Tea,” are among the most powerful moments they’ve ever committed to tape. It feels like you’re driving over a road that has its share of potholes and smoothly paved spots—rough, but exciting.”
“In a larger context, Nirvana seems to be waging a worthy war against the corporate takeover of rock & roll. It’s a valid fight, and In Utero makes a case for rock as the grating voice of the underclass. But watch out, Kurt—that target straight ahead might be your own foot.”
—David Browne, Sept. 24, 1993
On MTV Unplugged in New York
“There’s no avoiding it: Listening to Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York is an unsettling experience. When the show first aired late last year, it served to reinforce what many of us already knew about Kurt Cobain: that his songs could be stripped down to basics without losing their innate melodies, that he had a fondness for pretty, lugubrious tunes, and that there was an intense, lonely vulnerability lurking behind that scraggly blond hair and those dark eyes.”
“MTV Unplugged in New York—the first in an inevitable series of Cobain post-suicide albums—isn’t a suicide note, nor should it be read that way. But both music and singer have a hushed, resigned tranquillity that, given what happened, suggests we all missed something important in what seemed to be a dutiful TV appearance.”
—David Browne, Nov. 4, 1994
On From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah
“Even if Wishkah contains no new songs or intriguing covers, it provides nearly as satisfying an addendum to Nirvana’s story. Anyone who’s ever basked in the sheer joy of anarchic noise will want to crank it—for Kurt, for punk, and for the life-affirming energy this monumental band could generate on a good night.”
—Tom Sinclair, Oct. 4, 1996
What did you think of Nirvana’s music when it first came out? Which is your favorite album of theirs, and is that different than the one you listen to the most?
EW’s review of Nirvana’s box set ‘With the Lights Out’