In his book Killing Yourself to Live, Chuck Klosterman writes about the fact that all males at some point or another in their adolescence will go through a Led Zeppelin phase where no matter what they were into before or what they will be into later in life for a few months or so, NOTHING will be cooler to them than Zeppelin. I think it's safe to say that almost all of the male readers of this blog had a Zeppelin phase. For me, it centered around the aforementioned uncle from the Blonde on Blonde vs. Pet Sounds post loaning me a cassette copy of II at around the same time that I included Zoso in a Columbia House 8 CDs for a penny order. After listening to the guitar solo of "Whole Lotta Love" approximately 490098097 times, wearing out the bass line for Misty Mountain Hop, and renting a beat up copy of The Song Remains the Same from Franks' Video,* I dove HEADFIRST into my phase. Why all this Zeppelin talk in a post that is not actually supposed to be about Zeppelin? Because the era of all teenage males going through a Zeppelin phase is over. What's replaced it? Be prepared to feel old... wait for it... The Nirvana phase.
As someone who spends a good portion of the work week attempting to convince 8th graders that they need to give a damn about history, I think I have a unique perspective on the modern adolescent. Currently, I get WAY more kids rocking out to Nirvana in a lame attempt to get girls by forming an equally lame band than those channeling Page, Plant, Jones, and Bonham. Over time, I've looked back and found that my Zeppelin phase probably gave them much more credit than they actually deserved. Not that they weren't great, but lyrically, most of their work was on the border between barely tolerable and terrible and for all their musical power and talent, most** of their work was basically an exercise in "how loud can we play these recycled blues riffs?" So if Nirvana has become this band 15 years after the death of Cobain, what if anything, does this say about what Nirvana meant to us? I certainly remember a time in my life where I just wasn't interested in hanging out with ANYONE that found Cobain to be anything less than a genius. But does their status as the NEW adolescent dude band suggest, much as it does with Zeppelin, that they're not quite as perfect as we originally thought? I've got bad news for ya... I think so.
In preparation for this post, I found myself having to listen to In Utero a couple times through just to remind myself of the tracklist. This was red flag number one. It's not that the album is bad or that Nirvana wasn't great. On In Utero particularly, you can really hear a more mature band than on Nevermind that was obviously headed in a pretty interesting direction. There's a lot more there than the loud, quiet, loud formula that came to embody the "grunge" sound. This is particularly noticeable on tracks like "Dumb," "All Apologies," and "Pennyroyal Tea" that are strong departures from the formula that worked on Nevermind. Perhaps best of all, the influence of Steve Albini's production gives a raw, garage quality*** to the whole enterprise that is drowned out in the Butch Vig multi-tracking of Nevermind. The only problem though is that for the most part, the songs just don't have that sense of pop timelessness that other albums I've discussed here do. It's almost like Nirvana has become the equivalent of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. You can drink from it while you're there and bask in its glory but you just can't take it beyond the seal which in this case is high school. But even though they might not be all that useful to more mature music listeners anymore, it doesn't mean that they'll stop being fun and you can certainly take solace in the fact that they will help guide a whole new generation of pimply, girl-less, losers through some fairly difficult years of development.
Needless to say, The Replacements' Let it Be does not fall victim to the same fate. Whether they realize it or not, every rock band since The Replacements that doesn't suck**** owes these guys big time. Throughout the extent of their work, they bridge the gap between punk's raw aggression, pop's polish, and indie rock's willingness to stray from the conventional. Just going from the jangle pop of "I Will Dare" to "Favorite Thing" and its hints of Joy Division style post-punk to the weirdly sweet piano ballad "Androgynous" in Let it Be is far more impressive in terms of depth and profundity than the entire discography of Nirvana, much less one album. Add to this additional standout tracks like "Unsatisfied" and you get what basically amounts to a tour of the direction in which rock music was headed for the foreseeable future.
Let it Be will face off against Pet Sounds in the second round. Our next matchup will see In the Aeroplane over the Sea take on Daydream Nation in the first action of round two.
* If any P-Town Concrete people are reading this, PLEASE give it up for Franks'
** Everything except III and Physical Graffiti
*** Something that Cobain wanted for his band all along. Seriously, just listen to Grohl's drums in "Frances Farmer Will Have her Revenge on Seattle"
**** and some that do