When you listen to Nevermind 30 years after its release, it’s remarkable how front-loaded the album is. Kicking off with ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, Nirvana just keep coming at you with hit after hit, burning through ‘In Bloom’, ‘Come As You Are’, ‘Breed’, ‘Lithium’ and ‘Polly’ before you even realise that 25 minutes have gone by. It’s not like ‘Territorial Pissings’ isn’t memorable as well, but it’s the first song without any kind of explicit pop-adjacent hook.
But the back half of Nevermind is also a treasure trove of hidden gems – if such a thing is possible on the most famous album from one of the most famous bands of all time. ‘Drain You’, ‘Lounge Act’, ‘Stay Away’, and ‘Something In the Way’ don’t have the immediate ear-catching melodies that the rest of the album boasts, but they’re the kind of songs that any other band would have killed to have as their lead singles. And no under-appreciated song on the album is more impactful than ‘On a Plain’.
The isolated vocal track is a fascinating insight into just how quickly the recording process for Nevermind really progressed. Only about three weeks of recording, plus an extra week for mixing, was what was required of the band, and Cobain rarely took more than a few passes at vocal lines. But he was so precise and consistent that producer Butch Vig could combine different takes to layer vocals with surprising accuracy. They worked quickly, but efficiently.
The main problem with this approach is that you can hear the idiosyncrasies of the different vocal takes when the tracks get isolated. There are coughs, abandoned harmony lines, and even an errant bass overdub included in the final mix. Most of the less prominent features were buried in the mix, but listening in to the isolated tracks really highlights how gung-ho the recording process really was.
The biggest question about the vocal tracks is to what extent Dave Grohl contributed. Grohl first recorded backing vocals for the band came on the choruses to ‘In Bloom’, and Vig was impressed by his range and ability, so much so that he had Grohl record some vocal parts on the rest of the album. The only problem is that the precise parts of the album on which Grohl’s vocals remain are still in question.
Grohl’s voice jumps out pretty clearly on the wordless harmony vocals scattered throughout the song and most prominently featured at the song’s end. But it sounds as though most of the regular harmony vocals are actually Cobain’s, with Grohl only contributing to the “oohs” and “aahs” that colour the track. Of course, once the band played live, it was Grohl’s job to add the main harmony lines. But on record, most of the harmony vocals, from the soft chorus lines of ‘Polly’ to the powerful harmonies of ‘Come As You Are’, sound like Cobain alone.
Check out the isolated vocal track for ‘On a Plain’ down below.