The tragic story behind Nirvana song ‘Paper Cuts’

It’s often said that the greatest art is fuelled by darkness and trauma, and that’s precisely what Kurt Cobain embodied. His songwriting delved into the darkest recesses of his mind, presenting a macabre yet beautiful exploration to those willing to listen to it. Within Nirvana, many of his songs were born from narratives steeped in tragedy or sadness.

The band’s debut album Bleach resulted from many things, foremost record label Sub Pop’s pressure for them to conform to the burgeoning grunge genre and for Cobain to build his own fanbase. As a result, they ended up recording heavy rock songs to appeal to audience interests at the time. As Cobain noted: “There was this pressure from Sub Pop and the grunge scene to play ‘rock music’,” adding that he “[stripped] it down and [made] it sound like Aerosmith,” per Michael Azzerad’s Come As You Are: The Story Of Nirvana.

Although Cobain often said that lyrics were the least important part of his process, ‘Paper Cuts’ has a considerable dark undertone. This distortion-heavy track draws inspiration from a real-life incident involving a family in the band’s hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, who locked their children in the attic. Cobain penned the song after coming across the news story.

During a 1989 interview, he clarified that he was acquainted with one of the siblings: “His brother and sister were locked in a house and abused by their parents for years. They were treated as dogs for the first five or six years of their lives.” In the song, Cobain sings from the perspective of the children: “She pushed food through the door/And I crawl towards the crack of light.”

Incidentally, this is also the only Nirvana track to feature the word “nirvana” in its lyrics. Cobain repeats it several times after the first verse and again towards the end. In a 1989 radio interview in the UK, Cobain mentioned that the song was penned before the band officially adopted the name Nirvana, indicating that the lyric probably influenced the group’s moniker.

Another differentiator with this song was that the band’s drummer, Dave Grohl, wasn’t actually in the outfit yet: with Chad Channing as their drummer, Bleach made a little splash, but the real breakthrough came with the next album, Nevermind, which solidified them as trailblazers in the grunge rock scene, unlike no other.

Blending metal with traces of indie rock, Bleach emerged during a period when the prominence of glam metal started to wane, making way for a rawer sound. In tracks like ‘Paper Cuts’, Cobain appears to wield the noise he generates as a weapon, flirting with stoner rock through a deliberate, slow tempo, all the while delivering the group’s name with a languid moan as the rest of the band trudges forward.

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