These are two bands whose second album was explosive and massively influential but after each band’s 3rd album some sort of disaster struck – big drug issues with Jane’s and the suicide of Kurt Corbain of course. Each band was a product of the west-coast punk movement where Jane’s Addiction from LA turned to more Zeppelinesque sounds, Nirvana from Seattle’s grunge scene preferred a far more raw, yet well-produced modern punk kind of sound. The major albums of each came out while I was at university, so they formed the musical background of these formative years. At least the artists I listened to the most alongside the Chilis, Pearl Jam, and R.E.M.
The initial releases of each band: the self-titled Jane’s Addiction (1987) and Nirvana’s Bleach (1989) were raw, unfinished-sounding records of early live performances in the case of Jane’s and studio grunge in the case of Nirvana. I have not extensively listened to either of these because the albums that came immediately after these were just so groundbreaking that they completely overshadowed these predecessors. I suppose I could almost say the same in the case of Radiohead where OK Computer was so enormous that Pablo Honey looks rather juvenile next to it.
I remember when Nothing’s Shocking came out. I was completely entranced by Navarro’s riffs and Perry’s vocals in particular. The sound was so new – this fusion of metal, classic rock and punk with fuck-you lyrics front to back. I listened to it over and over and over again just digging every tune. The spaciousness as allmusic.com calls it of Ocean Size, the bitterness of Had a Dad, the sad ballad Jane Says…I don’t find any weak spots on this disk. For me it was the first 90’s album even though it came out in 1988. It was a kick in the ass of the 80’s and a taste of the times to come.
I also remember hearing Nevermind for the first time. I had vaguely heard of the grunge movement up in rainy, cold, coffee-addict Seattle. But when I heard Nirvana in 1991, I was immediately there. This album rips through you like an arctic wind or a shot of cuban coffee. There is no pause, no let-up in pace. The trio of Corbain/Novoselic/Grohl just beats the shit out of their instruments for the entire 59:16 starting with the blistering Smells Like Teen Spirit and ending with the haunting Something in the Way. The mood is every bit as dark and perhaps even more angry than Nothing’s Shocking. And there is no way to underestimate the influence of this disk. Now, Chuck Klosterman has argued that Nirvana didn’t survive long enough to be called a Great Band. And he is right when he says that Kurt’s solo in Smells Like Teen Spirit (and Rape Me on the following album) is copied from Boston’s More Than a Feeling. However, all of us that heard this album at that particular time have some kind of violent reaction to this album in either a positive or negative manner. It is not a recording that one can feel neutral about.
The next album from Jane’s Addiction, Ritual de lo Habitual was an excellent followup to Nothing’s Shocking in 1990. It slightly changes some parameters after a Spanish introduction speech, Navarro rips through Stop!. I loved the video for Been Caught Stealin’ (it is one of the last videos I ever watched on MTV I think). The long ballads, Three Days and Then She Said.. are fascinating and I have still not tired of them. The band had so much promise at this point. However, they started to break apart due to Perry’s and Perkin’s heroin additions which left Perry in particular in a skeletal-like appearance years later.
Nirvana wanted to say Fuck You to us on In Utero in 1993. His self-loathing seethes on this album. And yet, it is so damn good. OK, so as Chuck pointed out, the borrowed the riff for Rape Me. So what. Pennyroyal Tea, Serve the Servants, Tourettes…this album kicks some serious ass. The more poppy numbers like Heart-Shaped Box earned them some sell-out comments that probably sent Kurt on more drinking binges. But the band was rocking. One can only imagine now what would have happened had Kurt not sucked on that shotgun more than 17 (! we are getting old!) years ago.
I suppose that to be complete, one has to mention the MTV Unplugged (recorded in 1993, released a year later). This is truly a great live album although it does represent a very mainstream Nirvana. They have turned the corner on success and yet Kurt still seems abashed and defensive. His singing is plaintive and touching – who really imaged that 5 months later he would be gone. In the aftermath, Foo Fighters was born as was Hole. But we still all miss Nirvana and wonder what would have been. All so much more haunting when listening to the version of All Apologies on this album.
As a coda, I’ll mention the brief reforming of Jane’s Addiction in 2003 with the release of Strays. The album is far behind its two important predecessors and sounds quite derivative in comparison. I’ll admit to enjoying Just Because, but just because it sounds SO much like the rockers on Nothing’s Shocking. This album does neither surprise or break any boundaries. It sounds good and hard but is missing the edge that I became a fan of with Nothing’s Shocking. I regret that they were not able to really renew themselves and it is just as well that they are unlikely to attempt to do so again.
So how do I rank these two? I think for me at least it is a tie. Each band’s key 2nd and 3rd albums came at interesting times for me and each has songs that are among my favorites. I think I’ll have to say that Nothing’s Shocking is probably my favorite album of the 80’s where Nevermind is my favorite of the 90’s although it is rather tough because of Radiohead’s OK Computer in 1997. Well, let’s say that Nevermind would be in the top 2 or 3 in any case.