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Lithium (Nirvana song)

Single by Nirvana
from the album Nevermind
B-side "Been a Son" (live)
Released July 13, 1992
Format CD, cassette, 7", 12"
Recorded May–June 1991 at Sound City Studios in Los Angeles
Genre Alternative Rock, Grunge
Length 4:16
Label DGC
Writer(s) Kurt Cobain
Producer(s) Butch Vig
Nirvana singles chronology
"Come as You Are"
"In Bloom"
Nevermind track listing
Music sample

"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.


  • Background and recording 1
  • Composition and lyrics 2
  • Release and reception 3
  • Music video 4
  • Track listing 5
  • Charts 6
  • Accolades 7
  • Personnel 8
  • References 9
  • Notes 10
  • External links 11

Background and recording

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."[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] According to Vig, Cobain overexerted his voice while recording vocals for "Lithium," which forced the band to halt recording.[4] 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.[5]

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."[6] 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.[1] 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.[7]

Composition and lyrics

"Lithium" is representative of the musical style Nirvana had developed during work on Nevermind, alternating between quiet and loud sections.[8] 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.[9]

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."[10] 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."[11] 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."[12] 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."[10]

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.[13]

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.[14] The song was tied at number 20 with singles by Ministry, Lisa Stansfield, and Utah Saints in the 1992 Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics' poll.[15] In 2012, NME ranked Lithium at number 52 on its list of the "100 Best Tracks Of The '90s" in 2012.[16]

Music video

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 discovers some eggs that hatch. 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."[17]

Track listing

All songs written by Kurt Cobain, except where noted.

US 12-inch, cassette, CD, and UK 12-inch vinyl picture disc
  1. "Lithium" – 4:16
  2. "Been a Son" (live - Seattle - 31.10.1991) – 2:14
  3. "Curmudgeon" – 2:58
UK 7-inch vinyl and cassette
  1. "Lithium" – 4:16
  2. "Curmudgeon" – 2:58
  1. "Lithium" – 4:16
  2. "Been a Son" (live) – 2:14
  3. "Curmudgeon" – 2:58
  4. "D-7" (John Peel Radio Session) (Greg Sage) – 3:45


Chart (1992) Peak
Australia (ARIA)[18] 53
Belgium (Ultratop 50 Flanders)[19] 28
Canada Top Singles (RPM)[20] 83
Finland (The Official Finnish Charts)[21] 3
Ireland (IRMA)[22] 5
Italy (FIMI)[23] 19
Netherlands (Dutch Top 40)[24] 16
Netherlands (Single Top 100)[25] 17
New Zealand (Recorded Music NZ)[26] 28
Spain (AFYVE)[27] 13
UK Singles (Official Charts Company)[28] 11
US Billboard Hot 100[29] 64
US Mainstream Rock (Billboard)[30] 16
US Alternative Songs (Billboard)[31] 25


  • Ranked number 20 in Kerrang! magazines "100 Greatest Rock Tracks Ever!" (1999).[32]


  • Butch Vig: recording and mixing engineer, producer


  • Classic Albums—Nirvana: Nevermind [DVD]. Isis Productions, 2004.
  • Azerrad, Michael. Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana. Doubleday, 1994. ISBN 0-385-47199-8
  • Berkenstadt, Jim; Cross, Charles. Classic Rock Albums: Nevermind. Schirmer, 1998. ISBN 0-02-864775-0


  1. ^ a b Berkenstadt; Cross, p. 76
  2. ^ Azerrad, p. 137
  3. ^ Berkenstadt; Cross, p. 38
  4. ^ Classic Albums—Nirvana: Nevermind [DVD]. Isis Productions, 2004.
  5. ^ Azerrad, p. 138
  6. ^ Berkenstadt; Cross, p. 38–39
  7. ^ Berkenstadt; Cross, p. 77–78
  8. ^ Berkenstadt; Cross, p. 77
  9. ^ Chappell, Jon. "Nirvana's Music." Guitar. June 1993.
  10. ^ a b Azerrad, p. 218
  11. ^ Al and Cake. "An interview with...Kurt Cobain." Flipside. May/June 1992.
  12. ^ Morris, Chris. "The Year's Hottest New Band Can't Stand Still." Musician. January 1992.
  13. ^ Gaar, Gillian G. "Verse Chorus Verse: The Recording History of Nirvana." Goldmine. February 14, 1997.
  14. ^ Nirvana - Awards. Retrieved on January 16, 2013.
  15. ^ Christgau, Robert. "The 1992 Pazz & Jop Critics Poll." March 2, 1993. Retrieved on September 10, 2008.
  16. ^ "NME‘s 100 Best Tracks Of The ’90s".  
  17. ^ Azerrad, p. 259
  18. ^ Ryan, Gavin (2011). Australia's Music Charts 1988-2010. Mt. Martha, VIC, Australia: Moonlight Publishing. 
  19. ^ " – Nirvana – Lithium" (in Dutch). Ultratop 50.
  20. ^ Top Canadian Singles - Volume 56, No. 9, August 29 1992 - Nirvana - Lithium - Peak Retrieved 15 June, 2013.
  21. ^ Pennanen, Timo. Sisältää hitin: levyt ja esittäjät Suomen musiikkilistoilla vuodesta 1972. Otava Publishing Company Ltd, 2003. ISBN 951-1-21053-X
  22. ^ "The Irish Charts – Search Results – Lithium". Irish Singles Chart.
  23. ^ Hit Parade Italia - Indice per Interprete: N Retrieved 14 June, 2013.
  24. ^ "Nederlandse Top 40 – Nirvana search results" (in Dutch) Dutch Top 40.
  25. ^ " – Nirvana – Lithium" (in Dutch). Single Top 100.
  26. ^ " – Nirvana – Lithium". Top 40 Singles.
  27. ^ Salaverri, Fernando. Sólo éxitos, año an año, 1959-2002. Madrid: Fundación Author-SGAE, 2005. ISBN 84-8048-639-2, p. 602.
  28. ^ "Nirvana: Artist Chart History" Official Charts Company.
  29. ^ "Nirvana – Chart history" Billboard Hot 100 for Nirvana.
  30. ^ "Nirvana – Chart history" Billboard Mainstream Rock Songs for Nirvana.
  31. ^ "Nirvana – Chart history" Billboard Alternative Songs for Nirvana.
  32. ^ Kerrang! magazine, issue 746, April 17, 1999. (voted by readers).

External links

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