Nirvana Dumb Lyrics analysis and meaning

Songwriting

Dumb is one of the song analyses presented in the PDF Songwriting.

Dumb is the 6th track of Nirvana‘s third and last studio album In Utero (DGC Records, 1993).

The album production was funny enough to be told here: Nirvana worked with producer Steve Albini, known as a very opinionated guy in indie music industry. Nirvana and Albini agreed to stop DGC from interfering with the production: they paid the studio costs on their own money and Albini declared that the business people around the band were “the biggest pieces of shit I ever met” (read the wikipedia notice about this album), which is probably the rightest way to treat the people who make business with art 🙂 The album was recorded in only 6 days partly in overdub (separate tracks recordings) and Cobain recorded his vocals in the end, all of them in 6 hours. The only interruption was due to a visit by Courtney Love…

Let’s quote the wikipedia notice about the reception:

“After the recording sessions were completed, Nirvana sent unmastered tapes of the album to several individuals, including the president of DGC’s parent company Geffen Records Ed Rosenblatt and the group’s management company Gold Mountain. When asked about the feedback he received, Cobain told Michael Azerrad, “The grown-ups don’t like it.” He said he was told his songwriting was “not up to par”, the sound was “unlistenable”, and that there was uncertainty that mainstream radio would welcome the sound of Albini’s production.”

Funny, tasteful, intuitive people indeed (but actually, even the band and Cobain were skeptic about it…) The record company planned 50,000 sales for this album: it actually started number 1 on the Billboard chart in the U.S. and sold 180,000 copies the first week; it then sold at more than 12 millions copies worlwide, while Nirvana’s works sold in total more than 75 millions copies…

Kurt Cobain had thought of I Hate Myself And I Want To Die (a sentence he had written in his personal journals in 1992) as a title for In Utero. The 8th of April 1994, seven months after the release of the album, Cobain killed himself with a shotgun.

Music video

Lyrics

Nirvana – Dumb

Verse 1

I’m not like them
But I can pretend

The sun is gone
But I have a light

The day is done
But I’m having fun

I think I’m dumb
Or maybe just happy

Chorus 1

Think I’m just happy
Think I’m just happy
Think I’m just happy

Verse 2

My heart is broke
But I have some glue

Help me inhale
And mend it with you

We’ll float around
And hang out on clouds

Then we’ll come down
And have a hangover

Chorus 2

Have a hangover
Have a hangover
Have a hangover

Bridge

Skin the sun
Fall asleep
Wish away
The soul is cheap
Lesson learned
Wish me luck
Soothe the burn
Wake me up

Verse 1

I’m not like them
But I can pretend

The sun is gone
But I have a light

The day is done
But I’m having fun

I think I’m dumb
Or maybe just happy

Chorus 1

Think I’m just happy
Think I’m just happy
Think I’m just happy

I think I’m dumb [x12]

Lyrics analysis and meaning

Dumb

The title already transmits a depreciative adjective. Some bad feelings around?

Verse 1

I’m not like them

OK, we have a situation here: a guy is not like them. Who is “I”? Who is “them”? Suspense.

But I can pretend

This after that: it sounds like a problem/solution pattern. Will it be the case?

The sun is gone
But I have a light

Problem/solution pattern. Bingo?

The day is done
But I’m having fun

Problem/solution pattern again.

I think I’m dumb
Or maybe just happy

OK, that is a kind of synthesis, generalization of the feelings matching the 3 previous problem/solution couples. The Hero is stuck in situations between a feeling of not being able to solve the problems – feeling dumb – and the joy of finding fake, illusory or only partial solutions.

Chorus 1

Think I’m just happy
Think I’m just happy
Think I’m just happy

This sounds like a positive assertion after the dilemma – but the tone on which it is sung contradicts the feeling: he sings that he is happy a monotonous and unhappy way.

Verse 2

My heart is broke

This contrasts and contradicts the chorus “maybe just happy”.

But I have some glue

We are back to the pattern problem/(weak) solution

Help me inhale

In itself, it means help me breathe, = rescue me, but in the vicinity of “I have some glue”, it sounds like a teenager addicted to sniffing glue, asking a friend to help him… to continue.

And mend it with you

The “it” refers to the broken heart, but the intention to mend it with glue sounds far away because of the play on words that contributes destroying, hacking the poetry of the sentimental lyrics.

We’ll float around
And hang out on clouds

This is a clearer invitation to be stoned together – float and hang out with drugs.

Then we’ll come down
And have a hangover

And even in this drug trip scenario, the Hero can’t help thinking about the end of the trip, like it’s already over.

Chorus 2

Have a hangover
Have a hangover
Have a hangover

Surprisingly, the chorus lyrics repeat the same air and melody with opposite words: “think I’m just happy” has become “have a hangover”.

Bridge

Skin the sun
Fall asleep
Wish away
The soul is cheap
Lesson learned
Wish me luck
Soothe the burn
Wake me up

OK, those lyrics involve a very different style. Before, the verses were made of positive assertions and their contradictions. Now, it is a fast series of 6 short imperative verbs (skin / fall / wish / wish / soothe / wake), intertwined with 1 assertion (“the soul is cheap”) and 1 noun group with a verb conjugated in past time (“lesson learned”). Though ultra-minimal and possibly absurd-sounding, those lyrics might describe some underlying situations: it can be the character who skins the sun, asks to be wished luck, and then needs to soothe the burn; it can also be the same character that falls asleep and asks to be waken up. And it can be the same character who does everything. Then this disparate list can be understood as a mini-plot telling about a guy who falls asleep, skins the sun, soothe the burn, and wakes up. Once rebuilt, this mini-plot that sounds epic and poetic (to attack the sun in a dream) can now be interpreted as the crisis+climax structure meant to solve the problems of the Hero

Verses 1 comes back, exactly the same, from “I’m not like them” to “maybe just happy”.

The repetition of the same lines add more monotony, meaning boredom, and enhances the bipolarity of problems confronted to solutions.

Finally the chorus “Think I’m just happy [x3]” becomes “I think I’m dumb [x12]”.

Verses 1 has been repeated without changes, but surprisingly, they get now concluded an opposite way. Happy, positive, becomes dumb, negative. A poor form of harmony (through flat repetition) ends in paradoxical contrast (due to the unexplained change of appreciation of the singer about himself).

Commentary

Dumb is not a standard narrative song. It does not tell one or several continuous, developed plots. But still, the song contains much narrative content and is essentially dramatic. Let’s examine how it works from closer.

Plots?

Can we answer this question: is Dumb made of plots?

To prove that it is the case, we can show that:

  • It has a central character, the “I” who sings.
  • This character is in initial situations: “I’m not like them”, “The sun is gone”, “The day is done”, “I think I’m dumb”, “My heart is broke”…
  • He also has projects, intentions, goals: to pretend (that he is like them), to use a light (when the sun has gone), to fix his heart, to hang out on clouds, etc…

But many elements of narration are missing:

  • None of the goals and projects gets realized: the Hero tells about them, but does not begin them.
  • We do not meet any serious Antagonist, apart from the vague mention of “them”.
  • No plot gets developed. Each time they appear, the problems (possible setups of plots!) get solved, even if the solution does not stand well. It actually gives the impression that the Hero does not want to become the Hero, and refuses to engage in any adventure.
  • The 8 lines “Skin the sun” to “wake me up” sound, as we noticed, like fragments from an epic-poetic plot, but too fragmentary, destroyed.

Still, the song itself has a narrative profile:

It starts with the exposition of a guy who obviously feels bad, he tries to solve his problems in denial and drugs, but it doesn’t work – the Hero stays stuck in hesitation and ambivalence: short moments of happiness are overwhelmed by deep feelings of self-dissatisfaction.

Surprisingly, even if the plots elements are very fragmentary or missing or non-standard, we can still recognize not only one but two effects of plots structure (see Story&Drama 1 and 2):

  • 1/ Plots in series, with the 5 couples of problem/solution (4 in Verse 1, and 1 long one in Verse 2: problem: his heart is broke, solution: mend it with glue, consequences: sniff the glue, hang out on clouds, come down, and have a hangover)
  • 2/ Factorial plots: indeed, the 8 lines from “Skin the sun” to “wake me up” sound like they tell what happens during the previously described trip on clouds and thematically, they sound like a crisis+climax (the crisis is the fight with the sun, and the climax is the hero waking up from the dream).

Drama through themes

The narration is broken in Dumb, but it does not stop drama from working.

The events and facts mentioned in the lyrics contain by themselves important charges of dramatic energy: the sun is gone, the day is done, my heart is broke, hang out on clouds, skin the sun, soothe the burn… many elements involve a dose of softened violence, which helps rising tension through building a worried, unstable atmosphere.

Conclusion

Broken self, broken storytelling: this strategy also works well. It is possible to render a moment of someone’s life, not only by telling complete, standard plots, but also by showing through a non-conform storytelling the non-conformity of the main character.

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