Nirvana’s “Lithium” may have shared the emphatically shifting dynamics of “Come As You Are,” and the latent singalong infectiousness of Nevermind’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but it stands distinct from the others in that it feels less of a perceptibly personal and agonized admission from its author.
The context behind “Lithium”
That’s not to say that Kurt Cobain did not invest himself in the lyrics – there is much to be deduced from the words within – but he did repeatedly indicate that the story of “Lithium” was a fictional one. “The story is about a guy who lost his girlfriend,” he once explained. “I can’t decide what caused her to die – let’s say she died of AIDS or a car accident or something – and he’s going around brooding and he turned to religion as a last resort to keep himself alive, to keep him from suicide.”
While Kurt would concede that the song infused some of his own experiences, “like breaking up with girlfriends and having bad relationships,” there is the belief that its references to religion also stem from his background. As a teenager, Kurt had rebelled against his parents as a reaction to the betrayal and antagonism he felt after their divorce, and subsequent traumas. At one point, Kurt witnessed his mother being abused by her boyfriend. Seeking to improve Kurt’s behavior, it was decided that he should live only with his father, but in turn, it worsened, and his father ultimately reneged on his commitments and entrusted Kurt into the care of other family and friends.
It was around this time that Kurt moved in with school friend Jesse Reed, whose parents were born-again Christians. “His family life was a mess,” said Jesse’s father Dave Reed. “He had big problems with his mother and he was going through a really bad time. He and my son were always together, so I asked him if he wanted to stay with us. He jumped at the chance. I think Kurt saw me as a Ned Flanders-type guy. Kurt became a born-again Christian through my son Jesse and our family environment. He went to church almost every time the door was open. For a while, he took Christian life very seriously.”
Though he’d later renounce his faith, the notion of religion as a means of escape or a conduit to hope would abide with Kurt for years to come. “Sometimes I think religion is okay for certain people,” he said in 1992. “It’s good to use religion as a last resort before you go insane. I have this relative,” he continued, “who I really love a lot and she really inspired me because she was a musician and I used to go to her house all the time and she became really disillusioned with her life and became suicidal. And we felt that she was gonna kill herself. Now she’s a born-again Christian, and because of religion, she is alive still. I think that is okay.”
Recording Nirvana’s “Lithium”
“Lithium” was first recorded by Nirvana in April 1990, when the band got together with producer Butch Vig at his studio in Wisconsin to test run tracks for their second album, where Kurt would express his dissatisfaction with drummer Chad Channing’s performance on the song. A year later, as the sessions for what would become Nevermind began in California – this time with Channing’s replacement Dave Grohl on drums – they attempted to tackle “Lithium” again, but it would prove troublesome.
“We tried in vain to track one afternoon and it just didn’t feel right and that’s when Kurt went crazy after the third or fourth take,” said Butch Vig, adding that the group vented their frustration by launching into a live recording of their thunderous and relentless track “Endless, Nameless” instead, which saw Cobain thrashing around the studio in a fury. “It just came out of the blue,” Vig remembered. “And I’ve never seen so much rage and frustration coming out of someone; you could literally almost see Kurt’s vocal cords coming out of his throat he was screaming so hard. Then he smashed his left-handed guitar, which ended the session for the day.”
The meaning of Nirvana’s “Lithium”
Put to tape successfully the following day, “Lithium” was finally complete. Its lyrics paint a picture of a protagonist whose despondency (“I’m so ugly” / “I’m so lonely”) is alleviated by an enlightening conversion in which God becomes his protector. There is cause to suggest that he himself may have been responsible for his girlfriend’s death (“And just maybe I’m to blame for all I’ve heard,” he sings in the second verse, while the bridge part includes the significant line: “I killed you”), but whether the song becomes a plea for his repentance, or whether he feels responsible through his own failings and is simply grieving and clutching at Christianity for salvation, is quite unclear.
Meanwhile, the title itself alludes to the lead character’s mental state. Lithium is a medication prescribed to treat bipolar disorders and major depression, and its mood-stabilizing effects are known to reduce the risk of suicide in patients. Kurt’s cousin, Beverly Cobain, a registered psychiatric nurse, once claimed that he had been diagnosed as bipolar. “Bipolar illness has the same characteristics as major clinical depression, but with mood swings, which present as rage, euphoria, high energy, irritability, distractability, overconfidence, and other symptoms,” she said, “As Kurt undoubtedly knew, bipolar illness can be very difficult to manage, and the correct diagnosis is crucial. Unfortunately for Kurt, compliance with the appropriate treatment is also a critical factor.”
The correlation between the analgesic powers of lithium and religion was corroborated by Kurt, who called the latter “a fine sedative for the masses.” Both, he said, were a diversion from the sometimes unbearable harshness of existence. “Most people don’t deal with reality; it’s just so worthless,” he said. “People think of life as being so sacred, like it’s their only chance and they have to do something with their life and make an impact on everyone because the threat of dying is just so vital. As far as I’m concerned it’s just a little pitstop for the afterlife. It’s just a little test to see how you can handle reality.”
“Lithium” was released in July 1992, almost ten months after Nevermind, and though it charted lower than “Come As You Are” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” it outrivals them in its seething expressiveness. Its quiet/loud dynamics are utilized to a much more ominous effect – the beautifully melodic yet sinister verses build up to a crashing chorus, Kurt’s repeated screams of “Yeah” sounding like pure deliverance. But it’s the bridges’ forceful insistence of “I’m not gonna crack” that reveals “Lithium” to be a potent anthem for those determined to defy the odds and achieve true freedom.