Thursday, November 1, 2007

[037] In Utero

Album: In Utero
Artist: Nirvana
Release Date: September 1993
Label: DGC/Geffen
Producer: Steve Albini, with Scott Litt

"I wish I was like you,
Easily amused"
- from "All Apologies"

Glossing over the entire list, I find it necessary to choose my words most carefully in the specific case of Nirvana. They are in some ways the biggest band on the list, however you want to take that, but they're also the most misunderstood. I've always been bothered by the way the band's legacy is treated just because Kurt committed suicide (allegedly); with all the retrospective knowledge, I hope we can agree that the band would be seen in a different light if he died in a car accident or a plane crash, not to mention if the band just simply broke up. It seemed to me at the time that people's memories of the band were immediately changed. All of a sudden, they were this dark, depressing ominous mark on the history of Rock & Roll. Before that, sure Kurt was a bit of a whiner, but they were basically just a Punk band who liked to kick out the jams. Kurt Cobain has become this ultra-serious icon for all the depressed teenagers, but let me pop your bubble - Kurt Cobain was a funny dude. Yeah I said it. Does anybody remember the gown on Headbanger's Ball? The blue hair on the cover of Spin? Or freaking out the MTV producers by starting to play "Rape Me" on the VMA's? He was a deadpan prankster, and you know what, he had us all fooled - In Utero was his most genius prank, and we all fell for it, myself included. The album art should have tipped us off: smoking a joint in Santa hats, a drag queen, a Republican Party office burned out and boarded up, the idea of Krist Novoselic being interviewed on MTV. That is some crazy, funny shit.

If Kurt Cobain was alive today, I'd lay even money on his favorite actor being Ricky Gervais, he of original Office and Extras fame. Gervais excels in moments of uncomfortable silence, foot-in-mouth regret, or awkward situations in public places. He plays both the fool and the portal of experience, putting you there, in his shoes, or at least right next to him, and you get to cringe along with nervous laughter. Whether anyone knew or not, Cobain played a similar role in the Alternative Rock landscape. A cursory search of literature on In Utero will produce paragraph after paragraph on Cobain's lyrical slaughter of the record business, but no one ever talks about to what end. It was for a fucking laugh; he was taking the piss. And ya know what? He almost cracks - 3:14 into "Milk It", while roaring the chorus, he chuckles and almost loses it, coming close to ruining the whole joke. I hope we can also agree that "Milk It" is the one disposable track on the album, and that's maybe why the chuckle made it through - because maybe no one would notice.

So, as I was saying, the entire album is one big concept joke about the record business VS. the perception of what Nirvana was supposed to be. I'm sorry, but I think Kurt was way too smart to go through the trouble of building a reputation as a very respectable blue-collar Punk Rock purist, with impeccable street cred and discerning taste to boot, and then turn around and hand the record company exactly what the world was expecting, lyrically if not sonically. Yeah, I know, they brought in Steve Albini to get a more stark, raw sound, blah blah blah. Hey I would've brought him in too. Nevermind is fucking incredible and Butch Vig did a great job and all, but it just doesn't get their live sound across, especially Davey-boy's drums; In Utero hinges on that. The sound of "Scentless Apprentice" is one of the most brutal ever recorded, and "tourette's" and "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" aren't far behind. But I digress. Because Kurt was so kind to include his lyrics, let's take a look shall we? Ahem...

"Go away! Get away, get away, get away!"
"I miss the comfort in being sad"
"What is wrong with me?"

Angst humor! Hysterical! And there's tons more where those came from. You put out a song called "I Hate Myself And Want To Die", you are going to be expected to hold up your end of the bargain; Kurt was so messing with us. "Serve The Servants" begins the album with the line, "Teenage angst has paid off well, now I'm bored and old" - could it be more obvious than that?? That isn't remorse, that's Kurt poking holes in his status as a larger-than-life Rock figure. He came into this album knowing that the world expected him to be a downer, so he threw them what they wanted; In Utero was a test to see if they really wanted the Rock star on the edge of sanity. Like the uncompromising sound of the recordings, a few tracks, like the wonderfully titled "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter", deal directly with the biz and the expectations placed on the band. Nirvana definitely brought a whole new audience to the underground door, and so their decision to go with Steve Albini and basically make a cerebral Punk record was an inspired move; I'm sure more than a few people picked up Generic Flipper just because Kurt has a Flipper shirt on in the liner notes. Elsewhere, he reveals the flip-flopping conflict of his marriage, one moment defending Courtney as "not the witch like we had thought", then turning around with a "new complaint", calling her "my own pet virus" and likening the holy union to being buried on "All Apologies". If this theory, Kurt with his black gallows humor and sarcasm, is well-founded, then it makes his later marital problems with Courtney even more troubling, resurrecting all the conspiracy theories in our minds.

Kurt and Nirvana made an album they wanted to listen to, to play live, and one they thought their open-minded fans would enjoy. For some reason, there is still a debate as to whether Nirvana were a Punk band or not, and not that it really matters, but they surely were. Besides the fact that In Utero shares its spirit of freedom in volume and distortion with 80's classics by Black Flag and Hüsker Dü, and its irreverence with bands like the Minutemen and the Descendents, just the fact that they tried to pull off this big ruse and catch the world napping -and succeeded - is a big flipping of the bird to the establishment, a Punk tradition if ever there was one. The only regret through all of this is that the comedy soon turned to tragedy.

01. "Serve The Servants"
02. "Scentless Apprentice"
03. "Heart-Shaped Box"
04. "Rape Me"
05. "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle"
06. "Dumb"
07. "Very Ape"
08. "Milk It"
09. "Pennyroyal Tea"
10. "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter"
11. "tourette's"
12. "All Apologies"

"Serve The Servants" [live in Seattle, 12.93]
from MTV's Live & Loud

"Rape Me" [live in Seattle, 12.93]
from MTV's Live & Loud

"Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" [live in Seattle, 12.93]
from MTV's Live & Loud

"All Apologies" [live at the 1992 Reading Festival]

- BONUS: "Scentless Apprentice" [MTV's Live & Loud]
- BONUS: "Heart-Shaped Box" [video]
- BONUS: "Heart-Shaped Box" [MTV's Live & Loud]
- BONUS: "Heart-Shaped Box" [original Steve Albini mix; audio]
- BONUS: "Rape Me" [live on French TV, 1993]
- BONUS: "Frances Farmer..." [live in Inglewood, CA, 12.93]
- BONUS: "Dumb" [live at the 1992 Reading Festival]
- BONUS: "Very Ape" [live in Italy, 02.94]
- BONUS: "Milk It" [audio]
- BONUS: "Pennyroyal Tea" [MTV's Live & Loud]
- BONUS: "Pennyroyal Tea" [audio/fan video]
- BONUS: "tourette's" [live at the 1992 Reading Festival]
- BONUS: "All Apologies" [original Steve Albini mix; audio]

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