LET’S OPEN up Kurt Cobain and pick at his guts. Let’s check how many of his vital organs are pickled and poisoned beyond repair. Let’s trepan his cranium, shake out his brain and see how he thinks, what he thinks, if he thinks anymore. Let’s carve him up, pig out on the leftovers and hang him on a crucifix as one who’s really suffered for his art.
Because this is what we’re meant to do, isn’t it? Because we’re journalists, the petty banes of his existence, the ignoramus vampires who just want to dig dirt on that oh-so-unimportant private life. Kurt hates us…Why can’t we just concentrate on the record?
OK, then. Here’s ‘In Utero’, and here’s Kurt’s describing himself as “anaemic royalty”, loading his lyrics with baby smells, drug allusions and declarations of unambiguous Love. Here are songs called ‘Milk It’ and ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’, and here’s Kurt on ‘Dumb’ singing, “My heart is broke/ But I have some glue/ Help me inhale/ And mend it with you.” Still convinced the births, marriages and rumoured deaths of rock’s most compulsive f- up don’t affect his music?
Bullshit. ‘In Utero’ is a love letter written down and screamed out by a man scared of the contentment he’s slipped into. “I miss the comfort in being sad”, he ponders during ‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle’, smearing those ill-guarded secrets all over the record, exposing himself like the angel with see-through skin on the cover.
Throughout, he’s riven by contradictions: so embarrassed by his touchingly blatant love for Courtney that he has to dress it up in doubt and infected imagery; so freaked out by having to follow up the most significant rock album of the ’90s that he’s torn between upsetting and fulfilling expectations. Somewhere between sweet and sick, between ‘faggot’ pop and flat-out punk, between – perhaps – success and failure; that’s where Nirvana are now.
‘In Utero’ is a profoundly confused record. It’s neither totally a self-destructive squall of hardcore nihilism as originally rumoured, nor the ‘Nevermind II’ of more recent whispers. It’s not a grunge record, since the definition of grunge has moved on from meaning no-hoper gonzoid punks to embrace any metal band who wear dresses instead of leather kecks and are a little bit subversive for MTV – hello, Stone Temple Pilots. It’s not, unlike its predecessor, a revolutionary record either.
Nevertheless it is perversely enough, very good. At times rowdy and unnerving, at others disarmingly gentle, ‘In Utero’ sounds like a great band staggering around looking for a direction they can psychologically deal with. A mess, but a bloody entertaining one.
The key track – though not, by some distance, the best – is ‘Dumb’. As Kurt struggles to come to terms with the closest he’s been to a placid, settled life – “I think I’m dumb/ Or maybe just happy”, he intones guiltily – the music broods and circles, with the aid of a cello, like a baroque parody of ‘Lithium’. Again and again it builds up and up, primed to explode into a moshing sweatfest of a chorus, and again and again it ducks away from that commercially lucrative macho bonding rite. What once was inevitable is now unthinkable. This is ‘In Utero’ – Nirvana retracing old steps but opting out of our ultimate basest expectations.
‘Dumb’ marks the downbeat end of a pretty seismically good first side… After all, any album that kicks off with a song as beautifully bludgeoned as ‘Serve The Servants’, and a line as tellingly funny as “Teenage angst has paid off well/ Now I’m bored and old”, must have something going for it. Self-referential and self-pitying, for sure, but here at least Nirvana metaphorically wipe their arses on old ‘Nevermind’ sleeves with a little wit to leaven the whingeing bitterness.
Cobain’s voice drips with that trademark nonchalant venom, so hoarse it could be lost any moment. Set to a jerky, cranking riff that gleefully degenerates into a squiggly anti-solo, it’s an addictive pop song that makes a stunning statement of (lack of) intent for ‘In Utero’. Great Song Number One…
And Great Song Number Two, ‘Scentless Apprentice’, comes next in an opening salvo programmed to send you reeling before the album tapers off to an equally calculated anti-climax. ‘Scentless Apprentice’ takes the intuitive sense of hardcore dynamics Nirvana showcased on ‘Bleach’ and hotwires it to a splenetic new high. Producer Steve Albini’s in his element, hitching the staccato, slamming riff on to a huge earthquake drumbeat.
Cobain rants obscurely about demon spawn, semen, mushrooms and perfume before flying right off the handle, Metallica bring their guitars along for a brawl with Fugazi, wimpy old melody’s left cowering in the face of sheer scary power.
The band may well see ‘Scentless Apprentice’ as commercial suicide, but what was probably planned as a grating, record company kiss-off survives a brutal self-mauling and comes out with a horde of hardcore converts in tow. At times like this Nirvana are untouchable.
A respite. ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ packages tranquil love as dangerous obsession, with Kurt striving to appear a screw-up as well as a cosy family man. “I was drawn into your magnet tar pit trap”, he sings, hardly glamourising his beloved, “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black…” Yum. Meanwhile, the music ominously uncoils like ‘Teen Spirit’, before hitting a clipped, migraine-catchy chorus. Slightly restrained, it’s a strangulated, semi-f-ed-up anthem of sorts for a generation who fell in love to ‘Teen Spirit’ and are now as disturbed as Kurt by a growing sense of maturity.
‘Rape Me’, too echoes Nirvana’s millstone/ milestone with a note-for-note-perfect intro, the record’s first ‘Nevermind’-style wall of pop noise, and Cobain’s indomitable hiss-cum-howl through gritted teeth that’s still potent enough to cause involuntary sweating. It’s a great, debauched rock voice. But while you can’t doubt Cobain’s personal political correctness, there’s a distinct moral dubiousness about welding the words “RAPE ME!” to ‘In Utero”s best sing-along chorus. Yet again, Perverse Bastard Syndrome is in full effect, lobbing a spanner into the well-oiled, MTV-friendly works.
After ‘Frances Farmer…’, which comfortably follows the formula, ‘In Utero’ dips. If Side One makes for a stroppy, confused-but-cool follow-up to ‘Nevermind’, Side Two reverberates with a sense of anti-climax. Apart from a notable couple of exceptions, much here is mere punk obstreperousness without the deranged genius that makes ‘Scentless Apprentice’ some kind of classic. With such strong songs on Side One, you can’t help concluding this is another game to frustrate the mainstream kids. Lull the suckers into a vaguely satisfied sense of security… then make them want their money back.
‘Very Ape’ hitches a ride on a spiralling mantra and doesn’t really go anywhere. ‘Milk It’ is a decent but typical Albini job with sharply defined blasts and murmurs, and a fascinating but impenetrable list of reasons for love; “Her milk is my shit/ My shit is her milk”. ‘Tourrets’ is brilllantly executed, but ultimately unsatisfying, hardcore vitriol, and ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’ is a choppy, thumping run through the pervading obsessions of reluctant love, birth imagery and resentment of fame – the sort of rigorously unhinged work-outs a whole continent of college kids with bad attitudes and one-single deals would kill for.
But Nirvana’s great virtue has always been their capacity to make music that, through unavoidable pop drive, transcends alternative rock stereotypes. Here, Kurt seems embarrassed of that. These songs are the product of a scowling spoilt brat re-asserting his right to be antagonistic and difficult once he’s shown his audience how clever he is.
Amidst all this, ‘Penny Royal Tea’ is a great glowering point of accessibility, with Kurt winningly moaning “I have very bad posture”. It’s a terrific song – straightforward, insidious, oddly moving – but, even more than on close cousin ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, the band seem to be reining themselves in. Bizarrely, the guitars don’t scream enough, the chorus doesn’t tower like it should, and overall it’s the one real ‘Call Butch Vig’ moment.
Once ‘Tourrets’ is out of the way, Great Song Number Three makes its belated appearance. A ballad with belligerence, ‘All Apologies’ is a natural, wonderful development from ‘Come As You Are’ full of self-persecution and inadequacy – “Everything is my fault”, anyone? – along with the now-familiar lament – “I’m married/ Burried.”
Standard sentiments, but the music has an elegant, chiming constancy, again augmented by cello, that weirdly recalls Echo And The Bunnymen’s ‘Higher Hell’. This is how to smash dimwit preconceptions and thwart the meatheads – by progressing, not regressing.
The final, protracted ‘Gallons Of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through The Strip’ is a departure too, but one borne more out of stubbornness than inspiration. A muttered, strung-out, dissonant jingle for cold turkey, it’s slow-motion psychosis and self-loathing not unlike a Pavement rehearsal. While the idea of global megastars bonding with the atonal nerd-subversives of the current Yank underground is appealing enough, the end result – endless, aimless – is not. The bitterness of the unhappily famous isn’t much of a replacement for the determinedly doomed’s ironic charm. But there you go.
After which Nirvana lazily trash their gear and crawl off back to hellishly neat domesticity, leaving us faintly impressed, frustrated and with a bit of a headache… This was probably the idea.
As a document of a mind in flux – dithering, dissatisfied, unable to come to terms with sanity – Kurt should be proud of it. As a follow-up to one of the best records of the past ten years it just isn’t quite there. Perhaps it was dumb to expect anything more.