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Lithium (Nirvana song)

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UK picture sleeve
Single by Nirvana
from the album Nevermind
ReleasedJuly 13, 1992 (1992-07-13)
RecordedMay–June 1991
StudioSound City, Los Angeles
Songwriter(s)Kurt Cobain
Producer(s)Butch Vig
Nirvana singles chronology
"Come as You Are"
"In Bloom"
Nevermind track listing
12 tracks
  1. "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
  2. "In Bloom"
  3. "Come as You Are"
  4. "Breed"
  5. "Lithium"
  6. "Polly"
  7. "Territorial Pissings"
  8. "Drain You"
  9. "Lounge Act"
  10. "Stay Away"
  11. "On a Plain"
  12. "Something in the Way"
Audio sample

"Lithium" is a song by American rock band Nirvana. Written by frontman Kurt Cobain, the song is about a man who turns to religion amid thoughts of suicide. Nirvana first recorded "Lithium" in 1990 but then re-recorded the song the following year for the group's second album Nevermind (1991).

Released as the third single from Nevermind in July 1992, "Lithium" peaked at number 64 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and number 11 on the UK Singles Chart. It was also a number 1 hit in Finland. The accompanying music video, directed by Kevin Kerslake, is a montage of concert footage.


Nirvana singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain described "Lithium" as "one of those songs I actually did finish while trying to write it instead of taking pieces of my poetry and other things".[2] Nirvana recorded "Lithium" with producer Butch Vig at Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin during April 1990. The material recorded at Smart Studios was intended for the group's second album for the independent record label Sub Pop.[3] The book Classic Rock Albums: Nevermind (1998) stated that observers considered the session for "Lithium" as a key event in the developing rift between Cobain and drummer Chad Channing. Cobain was dissatisfied with Channing's drumming as their musical styles were inconsistent. Cobain told Channing to perform the drum arrangement he had devised for the song.[4] According to Vig, Cobain overexerted his voice while recording vocals for "Lithium", which forced the band to halt recording.[5] The songs from these sessions were placed on a demo tape and circulated within the music industry, generating interest in the group among major record labels.[6]

Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad described the song's title as a reference to Karl Marx's statement that religion is the "opiate of the masses".[7] Cobain said the song is about a man who, after the death of his girlfriend, turns to religion "as a last resort to keep himself alive. To keep him from suicide."[8] While Cobain said the narrative of "Lithium" was fictional, he said, "I did infuse some of my personal experiences, like breaking up with girlfriends and having bad relationships."[9] Cobain acknowledged that the song was possibly inspired in part by the time he spent living with his friend Jesse Reed and his born-again Christian parents. He explained to Azerrad, "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."[7]


After signing to DGC Records, Nirvana reconvened with Vig in May 1991 to work on its major label debut, Nevermind, at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California. Between the sessions, bassist Krist Novoselic simplified the bassline; he said, "I enriched the bass-playing a little more but that was about all that we changed."[10] The recording session for "Lithium" was one of the most arduous for Vig and the group at Sound City. The band repeatedly sped up while recording the song, so Vig resorted to using a click track to maintain a consistent tempo. The producer suggested that new drummer Dave Grohl use simpler fills and patterns for the song, which resulted in a satisfactory instrumental take. Cobain's guitar track was more difficult to record. "Kurt wanted to be able to play the guitar very ... not methodical—it needed to have this space," Vig recalled. "It had to be relaxed." Every time Cobain sped up, Vig called for another take.[2] During the first day of recording the song, Cobain became so frustrated at the slow progress that the band instead began playing an instrumental jam it had been working on. Vig recorded the jam, later titled "Endless, Nameless" and it was inserted as a hidden track at the end of Nevermind.[11]


"Lithium" is an alternative rock song that runs for a duration of four minutes and sixteen seconds.[12] According to the sheet music published at by BMG Rights Management, it is written in the time signature of common time, with a moderate tempo of 124 beats per minute.[12] "Lithium" is composed in the key of E Major, while Kurt Cobain's vocal range spans one octave and three notes, from the low-note of D4 to the high-note of G5.[12] The song has a basic sequence of E5–G5–C5–A5–C–D–B–D in the verses and B5–D5–E5–G5–C5–A5–C5/G–D5/A–B5–D5 at the chorus and alternates between the chords A5 and C5 during the bridge as its chord progression.[12]

The arrangement is representative of the musical style Nirvana had developed during work on Nevermind, alternating between quiet and loud sections.[13] In the song, Cobain fingers chord shapes on his guitar but varies between playing single notes and double stops on the instrument, giving the track a loose feel.[14] The song opens with bouncing bass guitar strums before starts Cobain singing his lines in an almost whispered manner.[15] His voice retains a measured calm during the verses, where low, open guitar lines trace the outline of the song's melody.[16] During the chorus, Cobain shouts "Ye-eh-eh-eh-eh" over fiver notes and distorted, towering riffs.[17][18] Cobain's thick, surging rhythm guitar meshes with Novoselic's melodic bass and Grohl's intense, snappy drumming.[19]

Release and reception[edit]

"Lithium" was released as the third single from Nevermind on July 13, 1992. Featuring a cover photo by Cobain, the single contained a sonogram of the musician's then-unborn child Frances Bean Cobain, as well as full lyrics for all the songs on Nevermind. Cassette, CD, 12-inch vinyl, and British 12-inch vinyl picture disc editions included "Curmudgeon" and a live version of "Been a Son" (performed on Halloween the previous year) as B-sides. The British 7-inch and cassette featured only "Curmudgeon" as an extra track, while the UK CD release added a cover of the Wipers' "D-7" recorded for BBC Radio 1 disc jockey John Peel's program in 1990.[20]

John Sullivan for New York Magazine described "Lithium" as a "flawlessly crafted hit."[21] Allmusic's Mark Demming remarked, "For all the sound and fury of Nirvana's epochal album, Nevermind, it's significant that the album's best and most affecting song is also among the quietest. ... The liberating force of Nirvana's inspired anger was rarely more powerful than in the service of this song.[16] Time music critic Christopher Farley praised the song for is "gorgeous guitar hooks," writing, "Its punk-inspired, we-couldn't-care-less ethos seemed to reflect the restless apathy some young people felt toward their times."[22]

"Lithium" was voted number fifty on Spin's Top 100 Songs of Our Time.[23] The song was tied at number 20 with singles by Ministry, Lisa Stansfield, and Utah Saints in the 1992 Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics' poll.[24] In 2012, NME ranked Lithium at number 52 on its list of the "100 Best Tracks Of The '90s".[25]

Chart performance[edit]

In the United States, the single charted at number 64 on the Billboard Hot 100 single chart. "Lithium" peaked at number 16 and 25 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock and Modern Rock Tracks airplay charts, respectively.[26]

Music video[edit]

The music video for "Lithium" was the second Nirvana video directed by Kevin Kerslake. Cobain originally wanted the video to feature an animated story about a girl named Prego who lives in a house in a forest. One day, she finds a big pile of eggs in her closet and puts them in a train of three wagons that she wheels through the forest until she comes to a king's castle. By that time, all the eggs but one have cracked and she takes that egg and carries it up to the king's throne and places it on a large book that's on his lap. He's asleep, but when he awakens, he opens his legs and the book slides between them and closes on the egg. When Cobain and Kerslake discovered the animation would take four months to produce, they instead created a film collage of Nirvana performing in concert. Among the concert footage used was material from the trio's 1991 Halloween performance and scenes from the film 1991: The Year Punk Broke (1992). Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad commented, "Although [the video] was enlivened by Kerslake's neat trick of using more violent footage during the quiet parts of the song and vice versa, it was something of a disappointment from a band and a song that promised so much."[27]

Covers versions[edit]

"Lithium" was covered by Scottish indie pop duo The Vaselines. According to singer-guitarist Eugene Kelly, after Nirvana performed the band's song "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam" for MTV Unplugged, the two were often asked if they would ever cover a Nirvana song. Their cover was included on 2011 tribute album, Newermind, created in celebration of the 20th anniversary the band's breakthrough album.[28]

A cover of "Lithium" by The Polyphonic Spree was featured in the 2015 film The Big Short.

Japanese experimental band Boris covered "Lithium" on the Nirvana tribute album Whatever Nevermind from the Robotic Empire label.

Track listing[edit]

All songs written by Kurt Cobain, except where noted.

US 12-inch, cassette, CD, and UK 12-inch vinyl picture disc
  1. "Lithium" – 4:16
  2. "Been a Son" (live - Seattle - 31.10.1991) – 2:14
  3. "Curmudgeon" – 2:58
UK 7-inch vinyl and cassette
  1. "Lithium" – 4:16
  2. "Curmudgeon" – 2:58
  1. "Lithium" – 4:16
  2. "Been a Son" (live) – 2:14
  3. "Curmudgeon" – 2:58
  4. "D-7" (John Peel Radio Session) (Greg Sage) – 3:45

Charts and certifications[edit]


  • Ranked number 20 in Kerrang! magazines "100 Greatest Rock Tracks Ever!" (1999).[58]



  • Classic Albums—Nirvana: Nevermind [DVD]. Isis Productions, 2004.
  • Azerrad, Michael. Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana. Doubleday, 1994. ISBN 0-385-47199-8
  • Berkenstadt, Jim; Cross, Charles. Classic Rock Albums: Nevermind. Schirmer, 1998. ISBN 0-02-864775-0


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  4. ^ Berkenstadt; Cross, p. 38.
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  6. ^ Azerrad, p. 138
  7. ^ a b Azerrad, p. 218.
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  11. ^ Berkenstadt; Cross, p. 77–78.
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External links[edit]