Sub Pop Album No.2 for Nirvana: What Would it have Looked Like?

I admit inspiration this time around came from a conversation in the forum at LiveNirvana initiated by Chris Hickman — all credit to him. He rightly pointed out that the April 1990 Smart Studios session was intended as the kick-off to album two, not just a rehearsal. With that in mind though, it’s clear that a significant chunk of the album known as Nevermind simply didn’t exist until late 1990 or even on into 1991, a year after this first shot for Sub Pop. Nirvana also hadn’t quite discovered the Pixie-fied formula that would drive a number of the songs on Nevermind, it simply wasn’t there yet. The dynamic of minimal guitar on verses then all-out choruses hadn’t evolved yet; most of the songs that had made it to the studio by spring 1990 were a step on in tone and brightness compared to Bleach, but the guitar’s presence still consisted of (a) constant or (b) the Sliver/Here She Comes Now (and later D7) model of building from quiet to loud across a whole song.

The record of what songs Nirvana had in existence and what songs appeared soon after the April 1990 session serves as a good guide to the likely shape of ‘Sheep’; the second Nirvana Sub Pop album. Often commentary on Nirvana simply wraps the 1989 to 1991 work altogether as if Nevermind was an inevitable product and only needed some tweaks prior to its mid-1991 recording. This simply isn’t true. A finalised album prior to the end of 1990 would have been a quite different beast. Let’s look firstly at what songs were in existence and unused by April 1990:

Songs Available in Mid-Late 1990

I’ve excluded the more or less abandoned songs that ended up on Incesticide; Blandest was gone though not forgotten given it had appeared in a set-list during the summer of 1989 (and also evidenced by the later inquiry as to its whereabouts made in 1992 of Jack Endino while Nirvana were preparing Incesticide); Vendetagainst had reappeared in late 1989 perhaps down to Nirvana’s knowledge of how few songs they had in reserve. In fact, down to the summer of 1990, Nirvana did have a dozen songs available, just a very different dozen to the DGC set.

So, half of Nevermind didn’t exist. Tourette’s was the only In Utero song likely to be in existence. Note that 1988’s entire output of new songs had been used up on Bleach just as almost all early 1991’s writing would be used up on Nevermind, same as the hurried writing in late 1992-early 1993 was swallowed whole by In Utero — Nirvana always reacted to the time pressure leading up to an album release to hammer some new material into shape. If an album was to be out before the end of 1990 then a further spell of work was needed.

And that’s where we diverge from reality. Those who believe it was preordained that Smells Like Teen Spirit and a number of other crucial Kurt Cobain compositions were written will suggest that a lot of lyrics, ideas for riffs and so forth, were probably floating around in his journals and in rehearsals for a while. I agree. Likewise, they would argue that the songs were a response to the circumstances of his life in mid-1990 to mid-1991 so a lot of the urges and desires that found expression in those songs would still have emerged. True.

Yet other crucial circumstances in mid-to-late 1990 were the commencement of business deals that funnelled a small but important sum of money into Nirvana’s pockets via publishing. That was all wrapped up in the preparation for a major label move and without it critical factors that allowed Kurt Cobain to write those songs would have changed. For a start, examine the record of how many shows Nirvana played from June 1990 to June 1991:

Gigs June 1990-June 1991

Late 1990 through early 1991 was indeed the greatest spell of writing Kurt Cobain would ever achieve but it relied thoroughly, not just on emotional traumas like the break-up with Tobi Vail, but on the availability of money so that the band didn’t need to be paid to play — heck, without that influx of cash it’s intriguing to wonder whether the conjunction of Tobi break-up and heroin love affair would have been kick-started either. Sub Pop wasn’t scribing the band many vast pay cheques so this long spell of minimal activity wouldn’t have occurred. Kurt Cobain’s songs would have had to have been churned out at speed — like the work done prior to the Blew EP the year before. Likewise, instead of being the product of a man who confessed later to having sunk into depression and near complete isolation at this time, they would have been the works of a guy spending a lot of nights plastered in sweat and whipping his body around a crowded stage in front of a posse of mouth-foaming punk rock fans.

The major label deal also allowed Kurt Cobain to commit to the more pop-orientated side of his vision. His music had already diverged from straight-forward grunge, but little in the spell up to summer 1990 showed the great leap toward the mainstream that would occur. The original of In Bloom was far grittier, Polly was a lone fully acoustic effort though Lithium was starting to show the band playing with loud-soft dynamics, Sappy was still a far rawer effort than its resurrection in 1993. The core of the songs the band had available would not have been jarringly out of place on Bleach; Breed, Tourette’s, Token Eastern Song, Even in his Youth, Stay Away, maybe even a revised Vendetagainst. These songs would have made the serviceable core of an album that sounded a lot closer to the pop-tinged but still overdriven roar of Dive, Been a Son and Stain. In that context Polly, or Lithium, or Sappy, would have served the role that About a Girl did on Bleach; the showcases for Kurt’s pop chops on an otherwise tough sounding record.

The change in circumstance, another indie record as opposed to a shot at pop stardom, needing to tour rather than sitting quietly writing up a heartbreak, pressure to write new songs in summer 1990 rather than spring 1991; these factors would all have changed the eventual results that emerged.

Note, however, that despite the April 1990 recording session, Nirvana didn’t immediately commence extensive writing in April-July 1990. In fact it’s unclear whether anything other than Verse Chorus Verse and Sliver came into being in those three months. The absence of any visible rush to do anything seems to indicate that there was no pressure on Nirvana to push a new album out, despite the ostensible purpose of the April session. It seems to hint that April was far more about getting a good sounding demo tape together at Sub Pop’s expense, testing out that ‘Top 40 drum sound’ in preparation for a REAL shot at the Top 40, than it was about kicking off a new album for Sub Pop.


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