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The Story Behind The Song: How religion and death informed Nirvana's 'Lithium'

Nirvana and religion aren’t exactly the most natural of bedfellows. Karl Marx had a famously paraphrased maxim that was foundational to his philosophy regarding the populace’s ability to find meaning and purpose in a seemingly random existence: “Religion is the opiate of the masses”. In its most basic form, the idea is that, when a person has nothing else to lean on or placate their lives with, they will turn to religious dogma to help explain the unexplainable, answer the unanswerable, and calm the raging waters of trauma. When there’s nothing left, perhaps faith can fill the empty spaces.

Kurt Cobain, a famously religiously sceptical individual, may not have personally embraced this mindset, but he was inspired enough by the idea of it to craft a fictional narrative that evolved into one of Nirvana’s greatest songs, ‘Lithium’.

Representing a larger scope that Cobain was embracing with the songs on Nirvana’s second album Nevermind, ‘Lithium’ was a major leap forward for the songwriter. With the band’s previous album Bleach, Cobain gave minimal attention to lyric writing, favouring short surface-level phrases over storytelling and metaphoric imagery: “You’re in high school again.” “Daddy’s little girl ain’t a girl no more.” “Black is black, straight back/Need more enemies.” “Gimme back my alcohol.”

Cobain likely wrote ‘Lithium’ in the interim between the release of Bleach and the first recordings for Nevermind. The band previewed their new material for producer Butch Vig at the latter’s Smart Studios for a demo session, where one of the songs worked on was ‘Lithium’. During this time, the band were still signed to Seattle independent label Sub Pop, and drummer Chad Channing was still behind the skins.

In the years since its release, Dave Grohl has been open about the fact that he mostly stuck to the drum patterns originally conceived by Channing on Nevermind. Grohl’s performance is tighter and more technically proficient, but it remains almost rhythmically identical to the arrangement that was performed by Channing during the Smart Sessions. Apart from some very minor lyrical tweaks, replacing the acoustic guitar in the verses with chorus-effected electric guitar, and the professional gloss provided by Vig and mixer Andy Wallace at Sound City Studios, ‘Lithium’ experienced very little change between its initial demo recording and its final state.

Part of what makes ‘Lithium’ so unique is that it’s based around a chord progression that is completely atypical of traditional rock music composition. Written in the key of D Major, Cobain’s dislike of (or lack of knowledge about) music theory leads to a number of chords that don’t normally factor into a D Major progression, including C, A#, and F. Cobain’s reliance on power chords also leaves many of the chords harmonically ambiguous: the F# and B chords in a D Major progression are usually minor if they’re sticking to the normal D Major scale, but Cobain’s sole use of roots and fifths in his fingerings mean that the chords can be either major or minor, and often act as pivot points for quick key changes when Cobain goes to the chorus or bridge of the song. The progression is highly chromatic, giving the song its eerie tension.

Lyrically, Cobain illustrates the story of a person whose confusion and desolation, rooted in the loss of a loved one, leads them to seek anything that will bring them out of the darkness. However, just like Cobain, this individual is never terribly morose about their reality, and can even joke sarcastically and self-deprecatingly. “I’m so happy ’cause today I found my friends/They’re in my head.” After all, even as the narrator is breaking down mentally, there’s always time to put things into perspective: “I’m so horny/That’s okay, my will is good.”

The term “lithium” refers to the mood-stabilising drug that often gets prescribed to individuals with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or other extreme mental health conditions. Cobain relates the effect of the drug to the effect of religion on a deteriorating mental state. Cobain’s teenage history with born-again Christianity may or may not have directly inspired the song’s creation, but it certainly informed his worldview, and likely was on his mind as he was writing ‘Lithium’.

It’s worth noting that ‘Lithium’ is not an explicitly anti-religious song. In fact, Cobain expressed to writer Michael Azerrad that “I’ve always felt that some people should have religion in their lives….that’s fine. If it’s going to save someone, it’s okay. And the person in [‘Lithium’] needed it,” in his book Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana. While it’s not explicitly stated, there’s a strong chance that the narrator of ‘Lithium’ was in fact saved by religion. Like most of his writing, Cobain keeps the answers vague and open to interpretation. What the song means to the listener is more important than any concrete finality to the story.

While just about every part of ‘Lithium’ flies in the face of conventional pop styles, it still has undeniable hooks that helped propel Nevermind to the top of the Billboard Album Charts and Nirvana to the forefront of mainstream culture. Despite its lowly singles chart appearances, peaking at number 11 on the UK Singles Chart and a dismal number 64 on the Billboard Hot 100, ‘Lithium’ continues to be a commonly cited and frequently covered song in the Nirvana oeuvre.

Cobain himself never turned to religion to cope with his physical and mental anguish, but in just over four minutes, he was able to create a rich narrative that brought together faith, sorrow, aggression, and catharsis into a truly powerful track.