Nirvana: In Utero

ROCK AND ROLL can be cruel. One minute you are a professional misfit, happily living out a punk-rock life of misery and alienation in an assortment of no-horse towns on the North-Western Pacific seaboard; the next you are the voice of your generation, an untouchable boy genius and global sex-god, and reporters are camped out in your dustbins. Grunge fashion is your fault, and you and your new wife and baby are notoriety’s holy family. Small wonder that the overriding tone of Nirvana’s In Utero (Geffen) is somewhat uneasy.

Its predecessor, Nevermind, was the kind of record which comes along every 10 years to divide the world into those who understand why it is the best thing ever and those who don’t. Albums like that cast a shadow which the follow-ups are never going to escape, but this one comes closer than anyone had a right to expect. Kurt Cobain, the singer with the face of an angel and the voice which makes throat specialists reach for their appointment books, hurls himself at the walls of celebrity parenthood with heroic disregard for his own safety.

As an opening line, “Teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old” certainly lays most of its cards on the table, but the tune it comes from, ‘Serving the Servants’, is something of a bum steer. Uncharacteristically jolly, plodding and perversely Beatle-ish, it’s good but it’s not Nirvana. The magisterial panic attack of the next track, ‘Scentless Apprentice’, would have been a better place to start. And the third song, the single ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, sees the LP into its stride, with Nirvana aware of how boring their obsessive mithering might become – ‘Hey, wait, I’ve got a new complaint’ – but winning through in a welter of love and viscera.

In Utero offers plenty of blood and guts – “I wish I could eat your cancer”, “Her milk is my shit”, etc – a lot of shouting, and some major-league perversity. The last track, ‘Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip’, is a wilfully self-indulgent doodle begging not so much to be tacked on to the end as taken out and shot. The biggest chorus, a conscious reshuffle of the chord rush of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, has the listener singing along with the words ‘Rape Me’. Like Nevermind‘s ‘Polly’, this is a well-meant lunge at male violence that trips up on Nirvana’s own frightening power.

For all that, In Utero is beautiful far more often than it is ugly. There is the odd big laugh; Cobain’s poker-faced admission that he has “very bad posture” gleefully overturns the bandwagon of confessorial trauma on which his band seemed stuck. Nirvana have wisely neglected to make the unlistenable punk-rock nightmare they threatened us with. Producer Steve Albini’s best efforts to smother their charisma beneath a layer of studio slurry have come to nought and the best moments here – the lovely, plaintive ‘All Apologies’, the lustrous ‘Dumb’ (“I think I’m dumb or maybe just happy”) – have an uplifting quality that actually goes beyond Nevermind.

© Ben ThompsonIndependent on Sunday, September 1993

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