“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. 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”. 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. 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. According to Vig, Cobain overexerted his voice while recording vocals for “Lithium”, which forced the band to halt recording. 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.
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.” 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. 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.
“Lithium” 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 vary between playing single notes and double stops on the instrument, giving the track a loose feel.
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”. 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.” 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.” 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.”
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 that 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.”
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