Today, we’ll be looking at another alternative rock song from a band that remains legendary and influential to this day. Before Nirvana, alternative music was stuck in the cramped specialty sections of record stores. After their second album “Nevermind” in 1991, however, the entire landscape of rock was changed forever.
Nirvana popularized punk, post-punk, grunge, and indie rock, bringing them soaring into the mainstream like no other band before them. Sure, Soundgarden brought alternative up to the edge of metal, and The Pixies successfully merged pop, punk, and indie sensibilities. But Nirvana really pulled it all together with a rebellious, fiery, and melodic sound.
Last time, we looked at Radiohead’s “2+2=5” from the 2003 album “Hail to the Thief”, and saw the amount of experimentation that went into its creation. While Nirvana’s simple melodies and pop sensibilities may not seem experimental on the surface, their combination of genre-blending, excellent songwriting, and insightful lyrics are what made them stand out.
“Lithium” is the sixth song on Nirvana’s second album “Nevermind”, coming in just shy of the halfway mark. The song is a perfect demonstration of manic depression, or bipolar disorder. The title refers to lithium salts, which are commonly used as psychiatric medication.
Kurt Cobain was diagnosed with both ADD and then later bipolar disorder. In every line of “Lithium”, you can see the tension between moods that Cobain creates. First, there’s his bored, depressed tone as he sings, “I’m so happy”. The lines start out in a positive or negative light, and then turn on a dime. Take the first line.
“I’m so happy cause today I found my friends, / They’re in my head”.
The low energy heard and felt in the verses, is met with the loud, rage-filled chorus, repeating the word, “Yeah”. This contrasts with the verse, and shows both ends of the manic-depressive spectrum.
The bridge of the song is directed at a lost love. The whole song could be interpreted as one man coping after the loss of his girlfriend, whether that is with religion, “Light my candles in a daze, cause I found God”, or the mood stabilizer, lithium. The bridge has Cobain pulling himself together in a shaky demonstration of control.
“I like it, I’m not gonna crack / I miss you, I’m not gonna crack / I love you, I’m not gonna crack / I killed you, I’m not gonna crack”.
The lyrics of “Lithium” suggest a dampening of emotions that takes place, allowing the author to cope. The numbing effect could come from an acceptance of religion (“In a daze, cause I found God”), or could be part of a commentary on religion being an opiate for the masses.
Whatever the case, that more or less concludes our discussion for today. Be sure to give this song a listen today (especially if you’ve somehow never heard it before). Next time, we’ll jump into the early 2000’s with a look at another alternative rock band.