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Friday, September 13, 2013

Album of the Week: Nirvana - "In Utero"

Rating: 9.0/10

September 13th, 1993, was a momentous day in alternative rock's history. Exactly twenty years ago from today, grunge gods and cultural icons Nirvana released their third and final studio album, In Utero. The album was one of the most highly-anticipated releases of all time, following the staggering success of 1991's Nevermind. The impact of songs like "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Lithium," and "Come As You Are" is legendary and well-documented; Nevermind turned radio and MTV on their heels and set the stage for alternative rock's takeover of the mainstream for the first half of the 1990's. Kurt Cobain's apathy and disaffection with the celebrity lifestyle connected with such a large portion of the American youth at the time that he became known as the John Lennon of Generation X.

So, needless to say, there was a lot of hype surrounding the follow-up album to Nevermind, to say the least. What In Utero turned out to be was something only a handful of bands have ever been able to do: a somewhat substantial change in musical direction while maintaining the artist's trademark sound. Angrier, heavier, and more raw than its predecessor, In Utero ended up just as good (if not better) a record as Nevermind. Few bands before or since have been able to make such a drastic change musically following an immensely popular album, as Nevermind was, without the end result being a major disappointment. Nevermind's rough yet clear production was tossed away in favor of a muddier sound, with Cobain electing for a more distorted guitar sound while drummer Dave Grohl made his drum beats trashier and more aggressive. So abrasive and unsettling was the album's sound that Nirvana's record label tried to force Cobain into re-writing the album, but (thankfully) he refused, and released the record as he intended to. Nirvana was giving a huge middle finger to the music industry, but instead of shying away, as so often is the case, the group's fans embraced their new sound. During the two years between Nevermind and In Utero, the 20-somethings of the country had, like Cobain, grown more and more exhausted of American pop culture and the way we treat celebrities. Cobain was the antithesis of everything a rock star was perceived to be; he was sloppy, brutally honest, outspoken, and most of all, himself. Throughout the '80's the rock scene was dominated by hair metal bands. Sick of long hair, flashy costumes, and fake public images that seemed to have more effort put into them than the actual music, Generation X gravitated towards a man who came along at the perfect moment. Finally, someone had come into the public eye with whom they could really connect. Thus, when In Utero showcased Kurt's strong disdain for the fame he'd found post-Nevermind, critics and fans alike passionately sang their praises of the record.

Never before had Cobain's resentment of pop culture been more apparent than on In Utero. Three tracks standout as the most violent and thus most indicative on the record; "Very Ape," "Milk It," and "Tourette's" were all straight-up punk-onslaughts as Kurt's growl morphed into a visceral scream over some of the heaviest instrumental work Nirvana ever did. While the entire album follows this sentiment, these particular songs are the most extreme of the bunch. Still, hidden somewhere under the muck and mire is Kurt's ear for delectable melodies, although it may be hard to hear behind all of his anger. This trio of tracks emphasizes the difference between Cobain's personality and his music is striking. For someone who was typically very calm and low-key in interviews and at public events, Cobain sure knew how to be loud on a cassette tape.

"Scentless Apprentice" is another of In Utero's more difficult tracks, though more structured than the aforementioned ones. Sure, the chorus (if you can call it that) of "go away, get away" is utter chaos, but somehow the song feels more structured than some of the other "heavy" songs. The same goes for "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter," which cheekily mocks mainstream radio for hardly ever taking risks and instead playing what some would consider "safe" music.

While all five of the songs discussed above certainly hold significance, In Utero's strongest tracks are slightly more subdued and more of a cross between Nevermind's pop sensibilities and In Utero's abrasiveness. One of these songs is the album's opener, "Serve the Servants." After a noisy opening verse, Cobain pulls back and delivers a hook more gloom than doom. The reverse occurs on "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle," as the verse's slithering bass line gives way to harsh guitar feedback and a raucous chorus. What follows it is without a doubt the lightest song on the record, and possibly also the most emotionally honest one. "Dumb," with its downtrodden lyrics and subtle string section, is a truly astoundingly composed piece. Cobain has always been a highly revered songwriter, but "Dumb" was the first time he didn't mask his emotion behind a wall of noise. Sure, "Polly" (from Nevermind) was acoustic enough, but that song didn't feel nearly as personally as "Dumb" does. "Dumb" also presented listeners with a hint of what Kurt could do without an amplifier or distortion effect, something the world would see during Nirvana's legendary MTV Unplugged show two months after In Utero's release.

Another highlight from the record is the lead single "Heart-Shaped Box," allegedly about Cobain's relationship with his soon-to-be-widowed wife and Hole lead singer, Courtney Love. A quiet-quieter form to the verse draws you in with its plucked guitar riff and soft drum pattern before the chorus takes a 180. Grohl pounds on his kit, delivering his best performance on the record, and Kurt's howled "Hey! Wait!" refrain never gets old.

The fourth and also probably the darkest song on the record is "Rape Me." The ambitious, defiant, and risky tune is a great example stellar quiet-loud sound Nirvana adopted from the Pixies. The guitar riff is one of Kurt's best, and that chorus is pure power. Though Kurt's intended meaning for the song is the most obvious one of speaking out against sexual assaults, but many have also viewed the track as describing Kurt's being uncomfortable with the constant invasion of his privacy by the press.

"Pennyroyal Tea" is a song that showcases Kurt at his lowest and is the most glaringly obvious hint of Cobain's depression and impending suicide. Lyrics such as "Distill the life that's inside of me" display Kurt at his lowest point. Coincidentally, the release of the song as a single was cancelled as Cobain's suicide took place just before the intended release in April, 1994. Nirvana songs like this one take on a much sadder meaning knowing what would become of Kurt Cobain, and resonate more with listeners.

The album closer, "All Apologies," rounds up In Utero in an odd way. For such a loud album, In Utero closes not with a bang but a simmer. One of the softer tracks on the record, "All Apologies" rings true to Kurt's emotions in a similar way to "Dumb," by putting away the screams for a bit and focusing on the orchestration. Since Kurt was not a violent individual, it makes sense he would say goodbye with a subdued, cynical track. It would turn out to be the last song on Nirvana's final studio release, and what a way to bow out. The rush of emotion after the second chorus of "married, buried" never fails to amaze, and the repetition of the final line is just perfect.

Who knows what would've become of Nirvana had Kurt Cobain lived past the age of 27? Maybe they would've burned out as the new era of pop-punk groups took over in the late '90's. More likely is the possibility that Nirvana would have continued to make fine record after fine record, possibly even shifting the future of the music industry for the better. "Alternative" would fail to live up to its name as the loosely-named genre would be the more common form of music. However, what really happened to Nirvana was probably and unfortunately how it was destined to be. The group relied so much on youth angst that it's hard to imagine a 35+ year old Cobain singing in the same way he did on these iconic records. Eventually, the band would've been a parody of itself as a new generation of young people took over, the group losing touch with the same target audience it once so sincerely connected with. The surviving members of the band, probably realizing the angst-y path was no longer the best option, steered clear of apathy in their later endeavors; Dave Grohl's post-Nirvana band Foo Fighters sing triumphantly and proudly, and Novoselic became a state senator in Washington, joining the authority his group so eagerly rebelled against some twenty years ago. They say an untimely death makes any kind of artist more appreciated, but in Cobain's case, Nirvana were icons as soon as "Smells Like Teen Spirit"  was put on tape. So, on this day, twenty years after the release of one of the most iconic and well-crafted pieces of music ever recorded, I'll leave you with the last words off the last Nirvana album. Make sure to check out In Utero if you somehow haven't already, and never forget, "all in all is all we are."

Key tracks: "Heart-Shaped Box," "Rape Me," "Dumb," "Pennyroyal Tea," "All Apologies"

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