Just how do you review an album as lodged in history as Nevermind? In so many ways 20 years ago, when it was released, was a blink of an eye but a lot of water has passed under the bridge since 1991 – much of it carrying the fall out from Nirvana’s second album. Deemed relatively unimportant when it first appeared (record label Geffen hoped that it would do as well as Sonic Youth’s Goo), its legend has grown over the years to the point where it is deemed worthy of a 50 track collection, clocking in at over three hours – a lot to ask of even the most dedicated fan.
Given that this is pretty much a variation on a single theme, the box set finds itself visiting a lot of the same ground – albeit in different forms and with a selection of live tracks and B-sides. A newly mastered version of the original album leads the charge and yes, it is a great record. No matter how many times you’ve heard that opening riff to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ it can’t fail to provoke a rush of excitement and revisiting the rest of the work after a while away proves how well it has stood the test of time. Essentially a great pop record (an accessibility that would cause Cobain problems in terms of a new found audience), it’s not surprising that Nevermind proved a singles gold mine. Yet it’s the darker (‘Polly’) and noisier (‘Territorial Pissings’) reaches of the album that provided a link to both what had come before in Bleach and the bleak follow up In Utero.
Having listened to Nevermind in this new, buffed up version, the collection offers the opportunity to do it again in other forms. The Smart Studio Sessions tracks show the band beginning to form the genesis of the album, also including a stunning cover of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Here She Comes Now’, but the versions are hardly essential. A lot more rough and ready are the Boombox Rehearsal tapes, which actually do offer a new take on the familiar. Although recorded on what appears to be a crappy tape deck, there is something genuinely amazing about hearing the band in such an intimate yet powerful way. You wouldn’t stick it on repeat but nevertheless it’s a must in this context.
The final take is perhaps the most anticipated, The Devonshire Mixes. Essentially the version of the finished record before mixer Andy Wallace got his hands on it, the band’s own revisionist history deemed it as the real album that they wanted to make. To be honest, the results aren’t radically different – the same songs with the sheen taken off, more of a grunge sound if you will. You won’t hear it and have a revelatory experience because in truth it wasn’t the production that made Nevermind such a treasure. Nor was it the hype, the videos or even the subsequent and tragic end to the story. It was the songs and if you need three hours of them to make you realise it then you weren’t listening in the first place. So, while this collection is impressive, your original version of Nevermind – be it on record, cassette or battered CD – will do just fine.