It’s pretty clear that had Nirvana’s third album been their first major label release, there may not have been another. Ironically, this was the band that Geffen had signed, not that ultra sleek, self-contained, Butch Vig produced Alternative Rock band that sold 30 million records. No wonder Kurt was confused. But he had made it, he’d earned the right to go into the studio and do whatever the fuck he wanted. The record label had no choice but to indulge him, despite telling Nirvana there were no tunes and despite the fact they wanted Scott Litt to remix the whole thing. And yet, it doesn’t seem like an indulgent record. More a sardonic one. In many ways it’s hard to gauge In Utero, with half of its material coming across like a baroque in joke, a massive anti-label, anti fans, piss take. ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’. Ha! Take that marketing speak. Take that payola wielding, ponytail wearing executives. Take that fairweather fans, take that grunge fashion, high street megastores selling lumberjack shirts. Take that morose teenagers who were always going to be morose anyway. In your face fame, fortune et cetera.
Be careful what you wish for.
So is it merely a tool of rebellion, the last puerile bellow of a man trapped by the fulfilment of his dreams? Or is it a masterpiece superior, more muscular, realer than its predecessor? Frankly it’s neither. It’s as confused as he was at the time. Part rage, part petty grievance-airing, part three guys making a hell of a lot of noise. That’s when it’s at its best, Kurt, Krist and Dave, just playing. That raucous sonic abandon that Nevermind missed. You may not have ever noticed that it missed it until you heard this record, mind you. The dream lay somewhere in between: this sound (recorded by Steve Albini, rather than produced) with those songs. That would have been an album. But when Kurt took his life in April 1994, that possibility was removed from the equation, and we were left searching his work for reasons.
‘Serve the Servants’, wonderfully rowdy, has the chops to have appeared on ‘Nevermind’. Lyrically it seems to deal with Cobain’s disdain at the murky digging into his past, the reasons he is the way he is. Because he was in pain? Because of his parents? He says himself “that legendary divorce is such a bore.” It’s got to be up there with the best, in terms of album openers. The dark, treacly thump of the drums, the near atonality of the guitar playing and the vocals, switching between the pained wailing of the verses and the mumbling of the chorus, set up the album perfectly. Here be monsters, it’s not too late to turn back.
‘Scentless Apprentice’, simultaneously a tribute to novel du jour Perfume by Patrick Suskind and birth, is the only track on the album which lists all three players as writers. It’s clearly built up around the insistent flams of Dave Grohl. Grohl’s virtuosity is perfect foil for Albini’s way of recording. He knows how to mike a drum kit, how to capture the raw power of a drummer like Grohl. The song is almost deliberately tuneless, maybe Kurt making a point. I gave this lot writing credit, what do you expect?
That ‘Heart Shaped Box’ is a love paean to Kurt’s missus speaks volumes. The lack of fidelity is reined in here by Litt, seconded to polish up the singles. That and the Anton Corbijn video with its constant rotation on MTV, back when the M stood for Music and not Morons, suggests that everyone involved still wanted to generate the odd hit. (On the deluxe edition, the original Albini mixes are included.) The lyrics were a tangled pile of adolescent metaphors and imagery. Umbilical nooses, eating cancer, broken hymens. It’s not surprising that they chose this as a single. Disenfranchised teens love that kind of garbed rhetoric.
Some of the lyrics read like a list of petty complaints, score settling. ‘Rape Me’’s reverse Teen Spirit riff suggests this how Kurt felt about the burden of fame and expectation his song had brought on him. Like ‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle’ it’s a bit of a whinge. “I miss the comfort in being sad”, he wails, as if suggesting he’s now expected to be happy, having achieved pretty much all he set out to do. ‘Pennyroyal Tea’, which used to be drunk to induce miscarriage, may fit in with the overall theme of obstetrics. Or it could be read as Penny Royalty, a reference to the infighting between Kurt and the other two over songwriting credits. More big league bullshit he clearly didn’t need. Musically it’s very much in keeping with his borrowed ethos. Quiet, LOUD, quiet.
Dumb, simple and affecting, equates happiness with stupidity. Throughout Cobain seems to take the artist’s route, that there’s more to mine in a rich seam of self hatred and moroseness than there is in love and puppies and all that shit. A cello over the chorus adds a melancholy depth. It’s still rather lovely.
‘Milk It could be the undiscovered gem amongst the rubble here. It’s the apex of the Albini credo. Putting aside the milk/shit analogy, it sounds like Nirvana channelling the very, very pissed off ghost of John Lennon. The anti-guitar noodles are offset by the crunch and vigour of that riff. That riff! As the cover advises, play loud. Very fucking loud.
This was probably going to be Nirvana’s last album anyway. Despite the optimism of a cross-pollination of Nevermind tunes and In Utero chutzpah producing the decade’s defining disk in a year or two, the reality was that this was as good as it was ever going to get. Nirvana were spent at this point. Drugs and paranoia, Courtney, arguments over money, years of touring all took their toll. It’s easy with hindsight to look back with the same clinical distance as we look at Joy Division’s Closer and think, well, of course, it’s some kind of valediction. The difference would seem to be whereas Curtis was riddled with guilt for feeling the way he did, Kurt was festering with anger. Everything was everyone else’s fault. In Utero was a great big fuck you. To the industry, to the kids who poured their money into that industry, to his friends, the band. To his craft, the songs themselves. There’s something in the facility of the songs, see how easy this is to do, but there’s also depth in the feeling. Those growls were earned, the pain is real. No one could ever accuse Kurt of being false, he saw to that.
And how good was it? It was pretty good. Almost very good. Let down by some tracks that weren’t great, and an intransigence in how Nirvana wanted it to appear. The lack of polish occasionally works against them over the course of the record. Despite himself Kurt could still write a few tunes. The album ends beautifully with the elegiac, cathartic ‘All Apologies’. The conspiracy theorists need look no further for a suicide note: “Married, buried,” he howls, as one follows the other as day follows night. Or night follows day. Whichever.
Less of a successor to Nevermind, this is more like its dissolute, abrasive brother, flawed yet equal. Kurt was reclaiming the outsider status that defined them once upon a time, trying to veer away from the mainstream. Ultimately, it didn’t work. They sold many, many records, they toured, they travelled the world. They had a massive model on the album cover’s angel on stage. It was arena big. They were still huge. It was all out of Kurt’s hands. For him he felt as if the only way he was going to make his life his own again was to end it. That still seems really fucking dumb. Play loud.