The allure of acts like Nirvana is many-faceted: the music, the intensity, the powerful ethos—but perhaps the most important reason that swathes of fans fell in love with Nirvana—and still do today—was the late Kurt Cobain’s visceral lyrics.
While the current health crisis has locked the doors of music venues for the foreseeable future, this period of social distanced flux has allowed us the opportunity to revisit some of our favourite bands and here we’re looking back at some of his greatest lyrics of all time.
Cobain’s writing process would see him always nail down the melody of a song before anything else—but once that was in the bag, the singer would focus entirely on his lyrics. It is here that Nirvana put themselves in a new category of rock.
Nirvana, unlike any other band, acts as a lynchpin between so many genres of rock and roll. From punk to heavy metal, Nirvana displays it all within their music but it is in Cobain’s lyrics that people found their sanctity, their peace and, ultimately, their icon—Kurt Cobain.
Below we pick our favourites lines from Cobain and Nirvana.
Kurt Cobain’s best Nirvana lyrics:
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
“With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us.”
Yes, we can hear the groans of diehard Nirvana fans as we select the group’s most prominent song as an example of Cobain’s lyricism. However, there’s a reason that so many millions found themselves worshipping at the feet of Nirvana following the track—it freed them from mundanity.
A generation of kids sat at home, bored, annoyed, and unable to change their situation. Cobain and Nirvana provided them not with any particular answers or escapism from the society they found themselves in, but they did offer a connection, an understanding of the situation and, most notably, a like-minded friend. It’s the reason Cobain’s lyrics resonate so loudly still today.
Famously, Cobain said the track was an attempt to write a song like the Pixies. “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song,” the singer once said. “I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”
“I’m so happy ’cause today I found my friends, they’re in my head”
Cobain was a lyricist who felt most comfortable when detailing his own expression.
That said, on this track, the band’s anthemic ‘Lithium’, the singer turns author and paints a vivid picture of a man turning to religion following his partner’s suicide. Naturally, Cobain draws as much as possible from his own experiences to colour this song with a deeper sense of connection.
Reflecting on the track, Cobain once said it was “one of those songs I actually did finish while trying to write it instead of taking pieces of my poetry and other things”. A deeper insight saw the frontman explain that ‘Lithium’ was the story of a man who turns to religion after the death of his girlfriend, treating it “as a last resort to keep himself alive. To keep him from suicide.”
In what fuelled conspiracy theorists, Cobain said the track was fictional but that he “did infuse some of my personal experiences, like breaking up with girlfriends and having bad relationships.”
“She eyes me like a Pisces when I am weak
I’ve been locked inside your Heart-Shaped box for weeks
I’ve been drawn into your magnet tar pit trap
I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black.”
Some of Cobain’s most intensely visceral lyrics find their home on ‘Heart Shaped Box’.
A song written by Cobain while he was hiding in a closet, the band encountered a number of issues in the recording studio as the enigmatic frontman attempted to relay his vision to the band. “I was trying to wait for [bassist Krist Novoselic] and [drummer Dave Grohl] to come up with something but it just turned into noise all the time,” he later commented.
After contemplating scrapping the track amid their struggles, Nirvana persevered and “finally realised that it was a good song”.
Aside from the brilliant refrain “Hey! Wait! I got a new complaint”, the song is dripping with vivid imagery. As he prods at the idea of stardom with a red-hot fire poker.
‘Serve The Servants’
“Teenage angst has paid off well
Now I’m bored and old.”
Cobain, by this point in his career, was becoming more and more self-aware of the situation he had created for himself.
The first track on their third and final studio album In Utero, Cobain takes on a number of personal issues with his lyrics in this song and, as many Nirvana fans have speculated in the years that followed, ‘Serve The Servants’ could refer to his father, his wife Courtney Love and his struggles with fame and his family life.
With Nevermind confirming the band as superstars, the tagline became unbearable for Cobain. Here he is at his most barbed as he reflects on the idea of selling out.
“What else could I say? Everyone is gay
What else could I write? I don’t have the right
What else should I be? All apologies.”
Another moment on the band’s final album sees fans of the band and Cobain wince as the singer seemingly apologises for his inability to live a normal life on the song he wrote for Courtney Love and his daughter.
Reflecting on the song years later, Drummer Dave Grohl explained that the song was “something that Kurt wrote on [a] 4-track in our apartment in Olympia.”
Adding: “I remember hearing it and thinking, ‘God, this guy has such a beautiful sense of melody, I can’t believe he’s screaming all the time.'” A painful reflection of a troubled soul.
“I’m not like them, but I can pretend …
The day is done and I’m havin’ fun
I think I’m dumb
Maybe just happy.”
In these all-too-revealing lyrics, Cobain contemplates the idea of happiness and the perceived stupidity he believes goes hand in hand with it.
In an interview with Melody Maker in the early ’90s, Cobain would later explain that the song was “just about people who’re easily amused, people who not only aren’t capable of progressing their intelligence but are totally happy watching ten hours of television and really enjoy it.”
Adding: “I’ve met a lot of dumb people. They have a shitty job, they may be totally lonely, they don’t have a girlfriend, they don’t have much of a social life, and yet, for some reason, they’re happy.”
With such an ethos embedded into the band’s final album, In Utero, it works as painful foreshadowing for Cobain’s untimely end.
“He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along,
And he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means.”
Another Nevermind entry, but this time it is wrapped up in delicious irony.
The song was composed between Krist Novoselic and Cobain as the band noted the growing trend of underground music. ‘In Bloom’ is the secret ‘fuck you’ that so many trendy kids never noticed.
While the track became an instant hit, the group also devised a comedic music video which further enhanced the message they were trying to get across. Apparently, the idea behind the visuals arrived because Cobain was “so tired for the last year of people taking us so seriously,” he said before adding: “I wanted to fuck off and show them that we have a humorous side to us”.
“I don’t care what you think unless it is about me
It is now my duty to completely drain you
I travel through a tube and end up in your infection.”
Largely considered one of Nirvana’s greatest songs and a hot cut from their seminal record Nevermind, the song ‘Drain You’ reflects on the all-consuming nature of love and the relationships it bears.
Interestingly, this song was forged during a time when Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain entered a jam session with Melvins drummer Dale Crover and his then-girlfriend Debbi Shane. Constantly trying to push the boundaries of his creative vision, Cobain created the short-lived band ‘The Retards’ for the jam session and recorded for songs… one of which was ‘Drain You’.
“At the time, Kurt was into starting bands with everybody,” Shane later recalled of the recording session. “So we went to the practice space my band Dumbhead shared with the Melvins, and formed the Retards for two days.” Naturally, Kurt did it in his own way.
‘Something in the Way’
“Underneath the bridge
The tarp has sprung a leak
And the animals I’ve trapped
Have all become my pets
And I’m living off of grass
And the drippings from the ceiling
It’s okay to eat fish
‘Cause they don’t have any feelings.”
Arriving as part of Nevermind and remembered fondly as the final song to feature on the record, the material is a sombre moment on the LP with ‘Something in the Way’ acts as the darker moments of Nirvana’s psyche.
“Kurt and I wanted the drums to be very understated,” producer Bruce Vig later recalled of the song’s inception. “Dave was used to playing much louder; plus, it can be very difficult to go back and lay drums over an acoustic guitar track, as the meter may vary a bit.”
Completed by violins, the first lines are a reflection of Cobain’s ability to block himself from happiness.
‘About A Girl’
“I’ll take advantage while you hang me out to dry
But I can’t see you every night for free.”
A song about dysfunctional relationships is a comfortable wheelhouse for Cobain but on this track from the band’s debut record, he details it with a heavy dose of pre-fame melancholy.
Arriving as the third song on their debut album, Bleach, ‘About A Girl’ has lived a turbulent life but achieved critical acclaim when it was the first single to be released in the wake Cobain’s death, rising to the top of the charts the world over.
“Even to put ‘About a Girl’ on Bleach was a risk,” Cobain later said of the track in an interview with Rolling Stone. “I was heavily into pop, I really liked R.E.M., and I was into all kinds of old ‘60s stuff. But there was a lot of pressure within that social scene, the underground — like the kind of thing you get in high school. And to put a jangly R.E.M. type of pop song on a grunge record, in that scene, was risky.”
It was a gamble that worked out in sensational style.
“Even if you have, even if you need
I don’t mean to stare, we don’t have to breed
We could plant a house, we could build a tree
I don’t even care, we could have all three”
One of the standout merits of Cobain’s lyricism is that when you see them written down you read them aloud in his voice. That isn’t just because we’re all familiar with his legendary scuffed up vocal drawl, but because the words themselves are borne from his very singular vernacular.
Unlike a lot of modern lyricists who may well have worked on the meta of this verse for hours to get it closer to being poetically acceptable, you can imagine Cobain sweeping up a scrunched-up sheet of paper from the floor of his bedroom and jotting this flash of inspiration down on the back of it and leaving it unadorned.
‘Son of a Gun’
“The sun shines in the bedroom
When we play
The raining always starts
When you go away”
This charming piece of college poetry perfectly sums up why Nirvana were so vital. Once more, its imperfection is also its inherent beauty. In an era where hair-rock was only just coming to an end and the youth were largely voiceless, this expressive individuality and open vulnerability was an entirely new force.
An ode to the instant loneliness of young love, Cobain was never afraid to expose his feelings, and while some might call this a little hammy, there are others who would say it is as sweet, concise and earnest as it comes–Cobain was always only writing for the latter folks anyway and that is what made his nakedly introverted style so refreshing.
“Take a look at what you are
It is amazing
Take a good look
You’re no big deal
You’re so petty
It’s a laugh”
In Cobain’s lyrics, things are twisted, they are not as they seem and they unfurl in funny ways, but beneath it all, you sense there is a meaning that he will show you rather than explain.
This alluring approach brings to mind Jim Morrison, or more specifically, the words Fred Powledge used to describe him: “Once you see him perform, you realise that he also seems dangerous, which, for a poet, may be a contradiction in terms. Morrison is a very good actor and a very good poet, one who speaks in short, beautiful bursts, like the Roman Catullus.”
He continued: “His lyrics often seem obscure, but their obscurity, instead of making you hurry off to play a Pete Seeger record that you can understand, challenges you to try to interpret. You sense that Morrison is writing about weird scenes he’s been privy to, about which he would rather not be too explicit.” Those words could seemingly sum up Cobain too.
‘On a Plain’
“I love myself better than you
I know it’s wrong so what should I do?”
Not every great lyricist has to turn out sprawling epics in the style of Bob Dylan, sometimes that feat simply doesn’t fit a song. However, if you’re writing a melody, it is almost compulsory to slip at least one standout point within it. Cobain does that throughout his work.
In the rollicking ‘On a Plain’, the grunge star bluntly displays his brutal honesty once more and asks a question that cuts through the music. His style exposed the psyche without ever flinching and you rarely get that put as succinctly as you do with these two lines.
“I lie in the soil and fertilize mushrooms
Leaking out gas fumes are made into perfume
You can’t fire me because I quit
Throw me in the fire and I won’t throw a fit”
Inspired by the outstanding Patrick Süskind novel, Perfume, Cobain expressed his literary influence and transposed the story of a crippled soul who kills for scent having mastered his craft and craved a final masterpiece, in this alluring grunge anthem. In doing so, Cobain entered a more story-like lyrical style.
This act of venturing off-piste from his usual tact exhibits two separate attributes. Firstly, the diversity of his approach is often missed. Secondly, the vast swathe of art that inspired the star is often overlooked. Like David Bowie before him, he introduced his fans to his own oeuvre of inspirations and anyone who has read Perfume or listened to Daniel Johnston will be thankful for that.