CSFTD #37: Nirvana – Lithium

What? Not ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’? I hear you ask! A great as track as that is, Lithium was always my favourite from this all too short-lived band that only released three albums.

Written by Kurt Cobain, it was first recorded in 1990, the year Dave Grohl joined the band following a succession of predecessors and then subsequently re-recorded in 1991 for second album Nevermind (and which also included Smells like Teen Spirit).

Their first album Bleach, which was more heavy metal than grunge, wasn’t on a major label and while popular with college radio stations and a reasonable seller it didn’t exactly resonate with the management of DGC Records when Nirvana signed with them, also in 1990. DGC wasn’t expecting much from Nevermind but SLTS really took off; in fact, it possibly came too big just at a time when, by some accounts, Kurt Cobain was at his happiest as he turned from angry songs to ‘poppier’ ones, with an accent on emotional matters such as conflicts in relationships.

It was also at this time that Nirvana started working with Butch Vig, once drummer with Garbage, who produced Nevermind (and hence Lithium) and who went on to be voted ninth best producer of all time by NME in 2012.

Lithium is a song about a man – possibly Cobain himself – who turns to religion amid thoughts of suicide following the death of his girlfriend and Cobain did say that, while fictional, it did incorporate some of his own personal experiences, possibly including the time he spent living with a friend and his born-again Christian parents. (Religion was a popular theme at the time. REM were losing theirs in 1990 but that song title has a different meaning altogether).

Cobain’s biographer suggested the title, which doesn’t appear in the lyrics, is a reference to Karl Marx’s famous assertion that ‘religion is the opiate of the masses.’ (Lithium is a long-established drug, since the 1800s, which is still prescribed for major depressive disorders and specifically to reduce the risk of suicide). Which begs the question as to whether Cobain was beginning to see himself as some sort of ‘saviour?’ If so, the sad irony is that just four years later he couldn’t save himself. Neither could lithium.

The song varies between quiet and loud sections, a style that Nirvana first adopted on Nevermind. The story goes that its recording was notoriously difficult with the band often speeding up and Vig having to resort to a click track to maintain the right tempo. Grohl was also asked to moderate his fills and drum patterns while Croatian-American bassist Krist Novoselic – who was responsible, with Cobain, for starting the band, simplified the bass line.

The song didn’t do particularly well, charting at #64 on the US Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, doing a little better (#16 and #25 respectively) on the Billboard Mainstream Rock and Modern Rock Tracks charts. It got to #11 in the UK charts, #5 in Ireland but made it all the way to #1 in Finland, where I suspect Nirvana’s previous incarnation as a heavy metal band might have influenced that outcome. NME ranked Lithium at number 52 on its list of the ‘100 Best Tracks Of The 1990s’ in 2012. The official video, a montage of live performances, was not too well received.

And it is for that reason that I’m not including the official video here. Instead, and possibly contentiously, the video is of the 2014 ceremony to induct – in their first year of eligibility – Nirvana into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nirvana ‘reformed’ for the event. The members invited to participate (of a total of 16 including touring and session musicians) were Cobain (in absentia), Grohl, and Novoselic, along with Pat Smear, who played rhythm guitar and sang backing vocals from 1993 until the band broke up.

Following an introduction by Michael Stipe of REM, and the acceptance of the award by surviving band members, Courtney Love and relatives of Cobain, Nirvana performed four songs that evening with different female performers taking on the role of Cobain, a huge ask for anyone and one that was likely to leave them open to scything criticism from Nirvana fans.  And that did happen, with all of them. Joan Jett bravely took on the role for Smells like Teen Spirit, Kim Gordon for Aneurysm and Lorde for All Apologies.

My favourite though, and not only because I’m a fan of hers, is St Vincent’s take on Lithium. Annie Clark’s history with Nirvana is well known to her followers; she has often said that without the influence of their music she might never have entered the business at all. She practically worships them.

Despite her apparent serenity, she must have been extremely nervous and that shows during the early bars in this video when after a tentative start she frequently looks at her fretboard to make sure she’s making no mistakes (which she hardly ever does even when playing her own instrumental breaks at lightning speed) , and when she misses a couple of cues. The moment you know she’s nailed it is from 3:10 when she suddenly grows into the role, just note Grohl’s smile (he knows) and the crowd’s reaction.

Over time the comments on this video have lost some of their early vitriol and a recent one even goes so far as to suggest that if Nirvana was to reform Clark might make an ideal replacement for Cobain. While I’d hate to ‘lose’ her like that I’d pay whatever it took to see a one-off show with her at the helm, wherever it was.

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