I will say this though, about the period in which they “broke” - I was definitely surprised that they did at all. In the early 90’s, my friends and I were still very much into metal. I had just attended the “Clash of the Titans” tour to see Anthrax, Megadeth, and Slayer. Nirvana actually first got a break by having “Smells Like Teen Spirit” played on Headbanger’s Ball; in fact I remember seeing this early interview in which Rikki Rachtman takes on a dress-wearing Kurt Cobain.
I liked the song, but it was obvious to me it wasn’t “real” metal. So, when it blew up to pop radio, 96 Rock, and everywhere, I was genuinely surprised that something so raw and angry became that popular.
I must say that “Drain You” is one of my favorites on the Nevermind album, along with “On a Plain”. In fact, those are the only two off this album which are in my itunes library. I think it’s because, due to radio saturation, songs like “In Bloom”, “Come As You Are”, and “Lithium” are completely. Played. Out. And that’s a shame.
(Though, surprisingly, their most famous song.., “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, doesn’t get old for me. Ironically, it’s the least played of all their hits off this album, and something about the drums crashing in at the beginning and the screaming at the end keeps me listening each time)
Lyrically, there’s some pretty cool imagery here about dependency. Some speculate Cobain was writing about a one-sided relationship with Bikini Kill's drummer Tobi Vail which he felt was sucking his soul away (hell, just the song title alone should tell you that).
The creepy chorus brings up, to me, thoughts of a helpless baby (be it a bird or fetus) relying on another for sustenance
Chew your meat for you
Pass it back and forth
In a passionate kiss
From my mouth to yours
To swallow (ha ha) this disturbing material, Cobain couches it in his now famous sing-along melodies. Of course, this is the genius of Nivana – making hard music and difficult lyrics palatable through irresistible hooks and choruses. How many people buying Nivana CDs in 1992 had just the previous year bought MC Hammer, Milli Vanilli or C & C Music Factory CDs? How many of those kids had a clue that Nirvana was satirizing and condemning them all through the album? Cobain pulled an awesome bait and switch, but then became resentful and self-loathing about doing it, fearing the “wrong people” were buying his music and not understanding it at all.
Musically, “Drain You” is propelled by Nirvana’s secret weapon – Dave Grohl. As the endurance and massive success of Foo Fighters has shown, he was a HUGE part of what made Nirvana so great. One thing I love about this song is the double-snare he puts in the verses...that “
I also really dig the middle of the song. After the second chorus, Cobain keeps the song in the minor key that finished the chorus instead of going major again and back to the melody (1:46). This gives the song an immediately ominous tone, and again Grohl does a great job with a constant bass drum beat. So begins a weird, unsettling, noisy interlude with chimes, buzzsaw guitars, and other strange effects. It’s not unlike a bastard Sonic Youth song, one of Cobain’s admitted influences. After a few bars of it, we have the classic (but enjoyable) musical trope of the “big buildup”, starting at 2:31 when they finally kick back into the familiar verse at 2:41, it’s awesome and exhilarating.
For all Cobain’s posture about not trying too hard with his music, it’s obvious he had a gift for songcraft and took great care to fully realize it. That he was already experimenting with expanding his style on “In Utero”, and the realization that we will never see where it could have gone, is a tragedy of modern music.
And just so you don't forget how kick-ass they were in concert, here's a live version