When Nirvana delivered a masterpiece


October 21, 2001



"At last, the insiders break their silence: The agonizing birth of 'In Utero'!'' the British magazine Mojo blared on the cover of a recent issue, which devoted nine pages to charting the tale of Nirvana's third and final studio album.

While the piece was illuminating for its trivia--at one point during the two-week sessions in rural Canon Falls, Minn., Nirvana drummer turned Foo Fighter frontman Dave Grohl tried to get a laugh out of irascible Chicago ''recordist'' Steve Albini by setting his hat on fire--it made the same mistake that many critics committed when the album was released in 1993: focusing on the minor troubles during the recording at the expense of the brilliant music that resulted.

In 1991 (''the year punk broke''), Nirvana unexpectedly stormed the pop charts with its second album ''Nevermind,'' ultimately selling 10 million copies and rudely elbowing aside '80s lite-metal hair bands and pop superstars such as Madonna and Michael Jackson. The Seattle trio was at a loss for what to do for a follow-up, but one thing was certain: It was reluctant to fill the industry's demand for glossy multiplatinum product.

Instead, singer-songwriter Kurt Cobain sought catharsis by mining the chaotic experiences of the previous two years--including his addiction to heroin, his troubled marriage to the controversial Courtney Love, the birth of their daughter Frances Bean and the many strains of sudden fame, wealth and constant media exposure.

Musically, the band retrenched a la the Beatles on the ''White Album'' or the Rolling Stones of ''Exile On Main Street.'' The group returned to its roots in the noise-rock underground of the '80s (Jesus Lizard, Melvins), enlisting Albini to provide a distinct alternative to what it considered to be the overly fussy sound that remixer Andy Wallace gave ''Nevermind.''

Cobain particularly admired the in-your-face assault of Albini's work on the Pixies' ''Surfer Rosa'' and the Breeders' ''Pod.'' But while Nirvana sought the Chicagoan's trademark unvarnished sound, the band never intended to sacrifice the melodicism that had powered Gen X anthems such as ''Smells Like Teen Spirit'' and ''Come As You Are.''

After the recording, when news leaked that R.E.M. producer Scott Litt had been enlisted to remix parts of ''In Utero,'' Nirvana was accused of caving in to commercial pressure from its label, Geffen Records. But the real force behind the tinkering was always Cobain himself. While living with the album after the recording, he concluded that some of the vocals just weren't loud enough.

''I've never been more confused about a session in my life; I just could not put my finger on it,'' Cobain told me in an interview for the Sun-Times shortly before the release of ''In Utero.'' ''There was never any sense of a threat [from Geffen] like, 'We're not going to put this record out.'''

In the end, with Litt's subtle remixing on a handful of tunes, Cobain and his bandmates felt they'd finally gotten exactly what they wanted. Nirvana had always said that it set out to cross the Knack and Black Flag. Now, it took that merger to the next level.

Some critics contend that ''In Utero'' is a schizophrenic affair, ping-ponging awkwardly between seven hummable tunes that are as catchy as anything on ''Nevermind'' (''Serve the Servants,'' ''Heart-Shaped Box,'' ''Rape Me,'' ''Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle,'' ''Dumb,'' ''Penny Royal Tea'' and ''All Apologies'') and five experimental ''noise'' songs that evoke Chicago's Jesus Lizard on a bad day (''Scentless Apprentice,'' ''Very Ape,'' ''Milk It,'' ''Radio Friendly Unit Shifter'' and ''Tourette's'').

With the passage of time, this dichotomy has actually emerged as the album's strength, reflecting the conflicts deep within Cobain's soul, and providing a jarring roller coaster ride that rivals other textured punk masterpieces such as ''Pink Flag'' by Wire, ''London Calling'' by the Clash, and ''Blank Generation'' by Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Of course, hindsight is only worth so much, and listeners should stop short of reading too much into Cobain's lyrics in light of his subsequent suicide.

With lines like, ''Skin the sun/Fall asleep/Wish away/The soul is cheap,'' ''Dumb'' can be heard as a song about heroin, while ''All Apologies'' seems to offer a scathing comment on Cobain's notorious marriage when he shouts, ''I'm married--buried!'' But the former was actually about a concussion that the musician suffered, while the latter was written long before he even met Love.

Nirvana's songs could never be heard on only one level. ''Rape Me'' was partly autobiographical, Cobain confessed. (''I kind of regret it in a way, because I don't want to dwell on the way that we've been treated in the media too much.'') But the song was also a comment on atrocities in the former Yugoslavia (bassist Krist Novoselic visited the country as a teen, and Nirvana played a benefit for Bosnian rape victims), and a protest of misogyny in general (Cobain was horrified by the way some boneheaded fans cheered for the rapist in the haunting song ''Polly'').

''My lyrics are total cut-up,'' Cobain maintained, referring to Beat poet William S. Burroughs' famous writing method. ''I take lines from different poems that I've written. I build on a theme if I can, but sometimes I can't even come up with an idea of what the song is about.''

Far more important than the actual words is the way that Cobain delivers them--his passionate growl belongs beside Van Morrison, Mick Jagger, or Rod Stewart on a short list of rock's most distinctive voices--as well as the joyful emotion of his guitar playing, a celebratory sound that is often intentionally at odds with the pessimism and anger of the lyrics.

''Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I'm old and bored,'' Cobain sings in ''Serve the Servants'' during the opening moments of the disc, but the music that follows is anything but tired or resigned. It displays a vibrant lust for life while protesting all that is mediocre or compromised. As such, it is firmly in the tradition of all great rock 'n' roll--while still very much uniquely of its time.

''Hate Haight, I've got a new complaint/Forever in debt to your priceless advice,'' goes the snarling singalong chorus of ''Heart-Shaped Box.'' The song can be heard as eloquently voicing Generation X's frustration with Baby Boomers' dominance of pop culture, including everything from classic-rock radio to the mythologizing of Haight-Ashbury, the Woodstock Nation, and the sacred '60s.

Following his death, one smarmy commentator appeared on MTV every half-hour to solemnly announce that Cobain had been the ''John Lennon of his generation,'' as if that was the only way his art could be validated. Fans knew better. Kurt Cobain was the Kurt Cobain of our generation, and ''In Utero'' was his finest moment.