Lithium (Nirvana song)
|Single by Nirvana|
|from the album Nevermind|
|Released||July 13, 1992|
|Studio||Sound City, Los Angeles|
|Nirvana singles chronology|
|Nevermind track listing|
"Lithium" is a song by the American rock band Nirvana, written by vocalist and guitarist, Kurt Cobain. It appears as the fifth track on the band's second album Nevermind, released by DGC Records in September 1991.
"Lithium" was released as the album's third single in July 1992, peaking at number 64 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and number 11 on the UK Singles Chart. It also reached number one in Finland and the top five in Ireland and Portugal. The accompanying music video, directed by American filmmaker Kevin Kerslake, is a compilation of live footage from the band's October 31, 1991, show at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, Washington, and from the completed but then-unreleased film, 1991: The Year Punk Broke.
Background and recording
Written in 1990, "Lithium" was debuted at a video session at the Evergreen State College's television studio in Olympia, Washington on March 20, 1990. The full session, which also included versions of three songs from the band's 1989 debut album, Bleach, was directed by Jon Snyder and conceived by Cobain as a potential video release. It featured the band performing live while a montage of television footage taped by Cobain at home played in the background. To date, no full songs from this session have been officially released by Nirvana's record company, although videos for "Lithium" and "School," edited by Snyder and featuring additional footage and still photos, appeared on two episodes of 1200 Seconds, a television show produced by Evergreen students. The episodes aired in the fall of 1990 on a local community access cable station.
The song was added to Nirvana's setlist soon after, over a year before the release of Nevermind. Kim Thayil, guitarist of Seattle rock band Soundgarden, recalled hearing it for the first time during Nirvana's show at the Off Ramp Cafe in Seattle on November 25, 1990, saying that "when I heard 'Lithium,' it stuck in my mind. Ben, our bass player, came up to me and said, 'That's the hit. That's the Top 40 hit right there."
In April 1990, "Lithium" was recorded by Butch Vig at Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin, during the recording sessions for what was intended to be a second album for the band's original label, Sub Pop. However, the release was abandoned after the departure of drummer Chad Channing later that year, and the eight-song session was instead circulated as a demo tape, which helped generate interest with the band among major labels.
"Lithium" was re-recorded by Vig in May 1991 at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California, during the sessions for what became Nirvana's second album and major-label debut, Nevermind. Preliminary attempts at recording the song's instruments were unsuccessful, in part because the band was having a difficult time maintaining a steady tempo, and kept speeding up. After one failed take, the band abandoned the song as a "frustrated" Cobain began playing the song, "Endless, Nameless" instead. This version of "Endless, Nameless" was released as the album's hidden track. The band's timing problems were immediately solved when their new drummer, Dave Grohl, took Vig's advice to play with a metronome. Vig also advised Grohl to use simpler fills and patterns for the song than he had initially attempted.
The song's quiet verses and loud choruses dynamic also presented a challenge for Vig, who said that "getting the verses to sound relaxed and the chorus to sound as intense as possible, and make the transitions feel natural and effortless, was a hard one to do." As Vig recalled, "Kurt wanted to be able to play the guitar very ... not methodical-it needed to have this space." The dark sound of the distorted guitar was achieved by using a Big Muff fuzzbox played through a Fender Bassman bass amplifier, recorded with what Vig believes was an U47 microphone that he usually used to record bass guitar. The vocals for the song's verses were recorded in two takes, with the second take being used as the master vocal track, although Vig used the second line of the second verse from take one. The chorus vocals were quickly recorded and double-tracked after.
"Lithium" was performed live at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards on September 9, 1992, in Los Angeles, although the band had wanted to play the unreleased song "Rape Me" instead. The band's initial choice was met with resistance from MTV, who wanted them to play their breakthrough single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," instead, and were possibly wary of the newer song's controversial title and lyrics. Nirvana agreed to play "Lithium" as a compromise, over concerns that not playing the show might lead to MTV boycotting other acts on their label, Gold Mountain, or firing their friend at the station, Amy Finnerty. "We didn't want to fuck everything up for everyone so we decided to play 'Lithium,'" Cobain explained in the 1993 Nirvana biography, Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. "Instead of bowing out and keeping our dignity, we decided to get fucked in the ass." The performance, which featured Cobain playing a short part of "Rape Me" at the beginning "just to give [MTV] a little heart palpitation," ended with Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic being struck by his bass after throwing it into the air and attempting to catch it unsuccessfully.
The final live version of "Lithium" was at Nirvana's last show, on March 1, 1994, at Terminal Einz in Munich, Germany.
"Lithium" is an alternative rock song that runs for a duration of four minutes and sixteen seconds. According to the sheet music published at Musicnotes.com by BMG Rights Management, it is written in the time signature of common time, with a moderate tempo of 124 beats per minute. "Lithium" is composed in the key of D major, with guitars tuned down a whole tone, and chord shapes resembling chords in the key of E major, while Kurt Cobain's vocal range spans one octave and three notes, from the low-note of C4 to the high-note of F5. The intro, verses and chorus have a basic chord sequence of D5–F♯5–B5–G5–Bb5–C5–A5–C5 and alternates between the chords G5 and Bb5 during the bridge. A transition from the bridge to the main chord sequence consists of a bar of C5 and a bar of A5. The sheet music makes no reference to the lowered tuning of the guitars and (inaccurately) shows the E major key signature.
The arrangement is representative of the musical style Nirvana had developed during work on Nevermind, alternating between quiet and loud sections. 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. The song opens with bouncing guitar strums before Cobain starts singing his lines in an almost whispered manner. His voice retains a measured calm during the verses, where low, open guitar lines trace the outline of the song's melody. During the chorus, Cobain shouts "Ye-eh-eh-eh-eh" over five notes and distorted, towering riffs. Cobain's thick, surging rhythm guitar meshes with Novoselic's melodic bass and Grohl's intense, snappy drumming.
According to Cobain, "Lithium" was "one of those songs I actually did finish while trying to write it instead of taking pieces of my poetry and other things".
In his 1993 biography Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana, author Michael Azerrad described the song's title as "an update on Marx's description of religion as the 'opiate of the masses.'" Gillian G. Gaar described it as "a song whose sing-along melody typically masks the disturbing quality of the lyric, which touches on the solace one can find in religion or madness." As Cobain explained, "In the song, a guy’s lost his girl and his friends and he’s brooding. He’s decided to find God before he kills himself. It’s hard for me to understand the need for a vice like [religion] but I can appreciate it too. People need vices.”
In Come As You Are, Cobain acknowledged that the song might have been inspired in part by the time he spent living with his friend Jesse Reed and his born-again Christian parents. Cobain told Azerrad that he wasn't necessarily anti-religion, saying 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."
Release and reception
"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.
John Sullivan for New York Magazine described "Lithium" as a "flawlessly crafted hit." 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." Time music critic Christopher Farley praised the song for its "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."
"Lithium" was ranked the 20th best single of the year in the Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics' poll, tying with singles by Ministry, Lisa Stansfield, and Utah Saints In 1993, it was voted at number 50 on Spin's Top 100 Songs of Our Time.
In 2012, NME ranked "Lithium" at number 52 on its list of the "100 Best Tracks Of The '90s". In 2013, it was voted number one "by a pretty comfortable margin" in Rolling Stone's reader's poll of "The 10 Best Nirvana Songs." In 2019, the song was placed at number seven on Rolling Stone's ranking of 102 Nirvana songs.
According to Nielsen Music's year-end report for 2019, "Lithium" was the tenth most-played song of the decade on mainstream rock radio with 123,000 spins. All of the songs in the top 10 were from the 1990s.
On April 10, 2014, "Lithium" was performed by surviving Nirvana members Grohl, Novoselic and Pat Smear, with lead vocals and guitar by American rock musician St. Vincent, at the band's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Barclays Centre in Brooklyn, New York.
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.
Live promotional versions
A live version of "Lithium," recorded at the Paradiso in Amsterdam, the Netherlands on November 25, 1991, was released as a promotional single in Holland in 1996, for the live compilation From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, released in October 1996. Clips of this performance of the song appeared in the 2005 documentary Classic Albums: Nirvana – Nevermind, and the full show was released on Blu-ray and CD on the 30th anniversary "Super Deluxe" version of Nevermind on November 12, 2021.
The Palace, Melbourne version
In October 2021, another live version, recorded at The Palace in Melbourne, Australia on February 1, 1992, was released as a streaming single ahead of its appearance on the 30th anniversary edition of the Nevermind. Reviewing the release for Rolling Stone, Kory Grow wrote that "the real magic in the box set manifests during the band's Melbourne, Australia, gig on Feb. 1, 1992. Cobain urges the crowd to sing along with him on 'Lithium' - a track that hadn't even come out as a single yet - and the audience nearly drowns him out, gleefully belting his lyrics about feeling simultaneously happy and ugly and not caring who knows it. Cobain sounds so into it, he forgot to kick on his distortion pedal for the song's primal 'yeah' chorus".
Reading 1992 version
A live version of the song recorded during the band's headlining set at the Reading Festival in Reading, England, on August 30, 1992, was released as a promotional single from the album Live at Reading, released in November 2009. Video of this version first appeared on the 1994 home movie Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!, although the audio was previously unreleased. In the linear notes to From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, Novoselic wrote that "hearing tens of thousands of people sing along with [the Reading version of] 'Lithium' was a very cool moment in the history of the band."
The music video for "Lithium" was the second of four Nirvana videos directed by Kevin Kerslake, who had worked with the band on the video for their previous single, "Come as You Are," and later directed the videos for "In Bloom" and "Sliver."
The video featured a collage of live footage from the completed but then-unreleased home movie 1991: The Year Punk Broke, which documented the band's two-week European tour with Sonic Youth, and from their show at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle on October 31, 1991. The footage from The Year Punk Broke was filmed at the 1991 Reading Festival on August 23, 1991, and at De Doelen in Rotterdam, the Netherlands on September 1, 1991. According to Nirvana's manager, Danny Goldberg, in his 2019 Cobain biography Serving the Servant, Sonic Youth's vocalist and bassist Kim Gordon initially opposed the inclusion of one scene from the film, which featured Cobain being carried on Novoselic's shoulders, but eventually relented after being reminded that Nirvana had allowed Sonic Youth to use five live performances in the film for free. As Goldberg explained, Gordon "was in love with the shot" and believed its inclusion in a music video would lessen its impact in the upcoming film. The "Lithium" video also featured Cobain jumping into the drum set at the end of the Reading set, during "Endless, Nameless", which led to him dislocating his arm.
According to Azerrad in Come as You Are, Cobain's original plan for a "Lithium" video was an animated film about a girl named Preggo, who lives in a house in a forest. The story was to feature Preggo finding a pile of eggs in her closet and putting them in a train of three wagons that she wheels through the forest, until she comes to a king's castle. By this time, all but one of the eggs has cracked, and she carries it to the king asleep on his throne and places it on a large book on his lap. When the king awakens, he opens his legs and the book slides shut on the egg between his legs. This concept was abandoned when Cobain and Kerslake learned that the animation would take four months to produce, and the live collage was made instead. Azerrad wrote that while the final 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."
All songs written by Kurt Cobain, except where noted.
- US 12-inch, cassette, CD, and UK 12-inch vinyl picture disc
- "Lithium" – 4:16
- "Been a Son" (live - Seattle - October 31, 1991) – 2:14
- "Curmudgeon" – 2:58
- UK 7-inch vinyl and cassette
- "Lithium" – 4:16
- "Curmudgeon" – 2:58
- UK CD
- "Lithium" – 4:16
- "Been a Son" (live) – 2:14
- "Curmudgeon" – 2:58
- "D-7" (John Peel Radio Session) (Greg Sage) – 3:45
|Australia (ARIA)||2× Platinum||140,000|
sales since 2009
|United Kingdom (BPI)||Gold||400,000|
Sales+streaming figures based on certification alone.
|1999||Kerrang!||United Kingdom||100 Greatest Rock Tracks Ever!||20|
- The studio version recorded at Smart Studios in Madison in April 1990 was released in September 2011, when all eight songs recorded at the sessions appeared on disc two of the 20th anniversary "Deluxe" and "Super Deluxe" versions of Nevermind.
- The solo acoustic version performed by Cobain on the Boy Meets Girl show in Olympia on September 25, 1990, appeared on the Nirvana box set, With the Lights Out, in November 2005. It was re-released on the compilation, Sliver: The Best of the Box, in November 2005.
- The 20th anniversary "Super Deluxe" version of Nevermind also featured early "Devonshire" mixes for most of the album, including "Lithium."
- A live version, recorded on October 31, 1991, at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, Washington, appeared on Live at the Paramount, released on DVD and Blu-Ray in September 2011.
- A brief clip of the band performing the song live at the Astoria Theatre in London, England on November 5, 1991, appears on Live! Tonight!! Sold Out!!. The clip, which appears immediately before the Reading version, features Cobain singing the opening lines of the song before stopping and telling the audience to wait while he starts over.
- Along with the Paradiso and Palace versions, two other live versions of "Lithium" appeared on the 30th anniversary "Super Deluxe" version of Nevermind, from the band's performances at Del Mar Fairgrounds in Del Mar, California on December 28, 1991, and at the Nakano Sunplaza in Tokyo, Japan on February 19, 1992.
- A live version, recorded on December 13, 1993, at Pier 48 in Seattle, Washington, appeared on the live video Live and Loud, released on DVD in September 2011. An edited version of the show, including "Lithium," was first broadcast on MTV, who filmed the concert, on December 31, 1993.
Cover versions of the song have been performed by choral rock band The Polyphonic Spree (which appeared in the 2015 film The Big Short), The Vaselines, Rockabye Baby! (as a lullaby), Man with a Mission and jazz quartet The Bad Plus.
- Kurt Cobain: vocals, guitar
- Krist Novoselic: bass guitar
- Dave Grohl: drums
- Butch Vig: recording and mixing engineer, producer
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As voted for by readers
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- on YouTube