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The Meaning of Nirvana’s “Lithium”

Nirvana live at Reading Festival 1992. Photo by Charles Peterson

Nirvana’s “Lithium” is one of many incredible songs from an album that today is seen as one of greatest albums of all time, one that is often the first thing that comes to mind when people hear the word “grunge”: Nevermind.

Released in September 1991, Nevermind was a massive success that formed a musical movement that lasted for nearly a decade, changing the way we as a society listen to rock music.

Nevermind also made Kurt Cobain and Nirvana extremely famous, which as we know was the beginning of a dark and twisted downward spiral for the songwriter that ended in his committing suicide on April 5th, 1994.

“Lithium” was the 3rd single released from Nevermind, following “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come As You Are”.

It was a tad overshadowed by the success of the previous two singles, and especially “Smells Like Teen Spirit” which went as viral as a song could go in the pre-internet days thanks to heavy play on college radio stations. The radio airplay leaked into the mainstream and eventually took hold on an international scale.

Still, though, “Lithium” was a hit in its own right, reaching number 62 on the Billboard Hot 100, and is seen today as one of the best songs that Kurt Cobain ever wrote.

Lyrically, “Lithium” is a study on mental health that describes the type of person you might imagine is represented by the band’s iconic smiley face logo, which also came about during the Nevermind release cycle.

The opening line, “I’m so happy / cause today I’ve found my friends / they’re in my head” is iconic at this point, introducing our unreliable narrator who is losing his mind and trying his best to cope with it.

Kurt Cobain singing with Nirvana in 1991. Photo by Frans Schellekens/Redferns

“Lithium” also depicts this individual having a psychotic break, a common theme in Nirvana’s music and perhaps best represented by this song. This psychotic break takes place during the song’s bridge, when Cobain sings:

I like it, I’m not gonna crack
I miss you, I’m not gonna crack
I love you, I’m not gonna crack
I killed you, I’m not gonna crack
I like it, I’m not gonna crack
I miss you, I’m not gonna crack
I love you, I’m not gonna crack
I killed you, I’m not gonna crack

Excerpt of lyrics from Nirvana’s “Lithium”

In a way this song can be seen as representative of the mental ailment that the song’s title is prescribed to treat: bi-polar disorder. The track alternates between quiet, subdued verses and big, booming choruses while the narrator switches between states of mania and disoriented, numb peace.

Cobain also takes a light crack at religion in this song when he sings, “Sunday mornin’ is every day for all I care, and I’m not scared / Light my candles in a daze, ’cause I’ve found God“.

While it’s already known that we have an unreliable narrator here, the idea of finding god while in a stupor of poor mental health seems to suggest that religion is pointless, though Kurt says in a 1992 interview with Flipside magazine that he did not mean that exactly:

The story is about a guy who lost his girlfriend, 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. Sometimes I think religion is ok for certain people. It’s good to use religion as a last resort before you go insane. I have this relative 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 because 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 ok.

Kurt Cobain, 1992

In another 1992 interview with Nirvana following the release of Nevermind, Kurt Cobain said that “Lithium” is “another story that I made up, but I did infuse some of my personal experiences, like breaking up with girlfriends and having bad relationships, feeling that death void that the person in the song is feeling – very lonely, sick.”

Nirvana also released a music video for “Lithium” that features a collage of live footage from the Sonic Youth documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke, filmed during a tour that Nirvana did with Sonic Youth in 1991. Watch it below.