If you’re anything

I had previously been aware that Nirvana covered the Devo song “Turnaround,” but I finally got around to actually listening to it. Turns out it’s amazing.

(This also applies to Nirvana in general. On account of when I grew up they were just kind of this indistinct looming presence; I had no motivation to actually listen to them until I saw a live video of them doing “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a song that had been floating vaguely in the background for most of my life, and actually heard it for the first time. I had the sudden realization that the reason all that shit happened was because there really was something there. It’s good to remember that there are secret circuits everywhere, even hidden in plain sight. Nirvana going down in history as nothing more than another Big Famous Band would be the only thing more tragic than what actually happened.)

Devo is what you might call a “philosophical” band, in a very broad sense of the term. They’re about ideas, and they convey those ideas from a particular sort of detached perspective. The human element is still there (especially when it comes to sex), but it’s presented as a sort of comic curiosity. Which is part of the point.

The Nirvana version of “Turnaround” is actually a standard-issue cover: it’s faithful to the songwriting of the original while implementing it in a new style. But in this case, this approach brings out the alternate dimension hidden in the song. The original takes petty human anxiety and transmutes it into cosmic horror through mocking understatement. The cover version, rougher and more visceral, brings it back to the personal, revealing that this view of the universe is ultimately based on projection: it’s our own hatred and emptiness that make the world the way it is. Kurt Cobain’s characteristic aggressive/self-loathing delivery makes the lyrics feel genuinely insulting; it turns banality into viciousness. Without, of course, obscuring the fact that those insults apply just as well to the person leveling them as they do to the target. It’s pretty scary.

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