Nirvana: In Utero 20th Anniversary Edition (Universal Music Group)
Available 24th Sept 2013
So it came to pass that In Utero would be the final studio album of the iconic band Nirvana. A band that, not four years previously, many of us in the UK were not even aware of. A band that would inspire a whole generation of young males and females to be themselves and that it was OK if you suffered from depression as here was someone who felt the same pain yet was now incredibly famous and (seemingly) living the dream. Simon Tucker looks back at In Utero.
We finally had a spokesperson. We’d seen elder siblings and friends rally around groups that had spoken to them (The Smiths/Joy Division/Stone Roses etc.), we’d seen the early big bang of acid house and rave culture, but were way too young (and to introverted) to be a part of it, now it was our turn! Michael Jackson no longer dominated the charts (Nevermind famously knocking the “King of Pop” off his pedestal). Guitars were squalling in youth discos and on MTV. Introspection and shyness became OK. A plethora of new bands seemed to pile through the now open door (some of extremely dubious quality it must be noted) thus inspiring many to pick up instruments/cameras/pens or anything we felt like because we had been given the OK to follow our dreams.
Of course, the Nirvana dream turned into a nightmare for everyone involved with the band and the story had a tragic yet familiar, and somewhat inevitable, ending. Outpourings of grief were seen across the globe as many people felt like they’d lost a family member. People listened back to the bands recorded output with fresh ears, trying to look for answers and clues etc and In Utero was the most perfect place to start.
Like Joy Division’s Closer or the Manic Street Preachers‘ The Holy Bible, In Utero became, sadly, an epitaph record and, like the other two albums mentioned, and also the creator’s masterpiece.
The album contains all of Cobain’s traits, contradictions, and flaws in both its lyrics and the music …. and that’s just the first song.
Serve The Servants opens with a drumstick click count and a burst of noise before Cobain comes in and delivers one of the greatest, most self aware, sarcastic, and honest opening lines to an album of all time, “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old”. The rest of the tune continues in this bare honest fashion with references to his estranged relationship with his father “I tried hard to have a father but instead I had a dad / I just want you to know that I don’t hate you anymore…” and his feeling of being persecuted “if she floats, then she is not a witch like we thought”. In fact, Servants introduces us perfectly to all the themes that Cobain will be exploring on this album including birth, persecution, self awareness, contradictions, and humor.
Scentless Apprentice follows with a more punky edge and the first real test for those who were not aware of the band’s work before Nevermind. On this track you can hear the influence of Public Image Ltd’s Flowers Of Romance album (a Cobain favorite) and it also contains Grohl’s favorite lyric in “you can’t fire me cos I quit” a lyric that has been variously interpreted as a dig against the music industry or as Kurt’s general feelings towards life itself. The track is a screaming howl of despair and utterly thrilling.
After the feedback of Apprentice has faded, a lone guitar plucks a basic pattern ushering in Heart Shaped Box, a much talked about track and not just for its content. The first single to be released from In Utero, Box was ‘additionally mixed’ by REM favorite Scott Litt causing much consternation for the album’s producer, Steve Albini. The fact that Cobain acquiesced to the will of his record company and allowed a new ‘smoother’ mix to be released instead of Albini’s original more incendiary recording was proof that for all his anti-music industry bluster and professions of not loving fame, he did have a pop sensibility at heart and a desire to succeed.
Lyrically the track itself is forthright in its birth/love/death theme. References to ‘baby’s breath’ and an ‘umbilical noose’ bring into sharp focus Cobain’s feelings about birth and his love for both Frances Bean and Courtney. Of course, this being Cobain, the love in question is a dark love full of fear of death “I wish I could eat your cancer/when you turn black” and a wish to disappear back to warmth of the womb.
Heart Shaped Box is a thoroughly modern love song and one which, with its striking video, directed by Anton Corbijn (another connection to Ian Curtis being made), leaves an impression on all who see and hear it.
Rape Me is up next and with its Teen Spirit referencing opening riff is a true dig at the music industry and the fans that now followed the band that they were very uneasy with. Cobain stated that the track was about a female proclaiming that what her attacker was about to do to her would not hurt her, but it could easily be seen as his personal feelings about the media interest in him and his family after the release of the previous album. For all of the controversy surrounding this song it is easy to forget just how good it is. Grohl and Novoselic lock in perfectly and it is so well structured that when the final, screaming, last minute of the song takes off, it is easy to find one self singing along thus making the track even more powerful. Songs can say what they want as long as they’re catchy…
Next track, Frances Framer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle, is a track that lays bare Cobain’s persecution complex as he equates what his happening to him with what happened to the actress who was involuntarily committed to a mental hospital in the 1950s, and those who were tried as witches in the 1600s. It’s a track that is so “I’m being treated so badly” that it is another example of Cobain’s contradictory nature (especially after the fuss over the first singles release) and also, it feels like the weakest track on the album although with it’s “I miss the comfort in being sad” lyric, it did again say something that struck straight to the heart of many a young listener.
Hooray then for Dumb. A track more in keeping with Nevermind and one that signposts the direction the band would take for their Unplugged session. Gorgeous cello, played by Kera Schaley, underpins the main music as Cobain states that he thinks he’s just happy. Is this a sarcastic track? Or is this a genuine statement of Kurt being happy in his own skin? That’s up to the listener to figure out for themselves.
After the relative mellowness of the previous two tracks, Very Ape rips us right back to the visceral sensations created by the opening of the album, and the roots of the band itself. Coming across like an updated Bleach era song, this is where the band are let loose. The rhythm section are tight and lost in the chaos whilst Cobain rifts about “contradictionary (sic) flies” and “acting like I’m not naïve” again letting us into his confused mind.
Milk It keeps us in the Bleach era vein and it is on this track that you hear the beauty of a Steve Albini production. Drums are high in the mix and sound massive. No one makes a snare sound as nasty as Albini. Novoselic slithers around underneath everything adding a sleazy groove to proceedings and Cobain keeps up the high quality of the track with half smacked out mumbled lyrics about “test meat” and lyrics referencing hospital stays and suicide. A stunning example of Nirvana’s groove punk early days metamorphosing into a gloriously sludgy modern rock song, Milk It even includes a half giggle by Cobain confirming that behind the darkness there is a humor underlining proceedings.
A cough then a slowly strummed acoustic guitar than introduces Pennyroyal Tea. A beautiful yet disturbing track taking abortion as its subject matter, this track would become a firm fan favorite especially after the stunning performance of it in the Unplugged album.
Radio Friendly Unit Shifter plugs us back into an electric storm with a sarcastic title and a wail of feedback, the music on this song actually disguise the extremely personal lyrics that Cobain is singing. Maybe afraid of giving this lyric the acoustic treatment like the previous song, Cobain delivers soul baring lyrics which read like a diary and a mantra for him to stick to –
“Hate, Hate your enemies
Save, Save your friends
Find, Find your place
Speak, Speak the truth”.
The line about “blanket acne and cigarette burns” is a fine example of someone addressing the ugly side of an opiates addiction.
Tourette’s contains in the same vein, however, as the title of the song implies, there are no decipherable lyrics, just noise. The track does contain a lovely surf/Pixies type rhythm before breaking all out into destructive noise. Come As You Are this is not …
Then to close proceedings we have the stunning All Apologies. Another track ‘remixed’ by Scott Litt, this is one of the greatest end songs to an album, and (unfortunately) a life. Reading like a goodbye and an acceptance of ones fate, this is the one Nirvana song that deserves be remembered forever. Forget Smells Like Teens Spirit, forget Lithium, this is the one. An achingly beautiful song, and a perfect end to an album.
Of course we have the ‘hidden track’ , Gallons Of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through The Strip, at the end but, this is just a track that is half arsed and nowhere near completed and is again referencing birth. Non essential.
So what about the extras?
This anniversary edition contains a full 2013 remastered version of the album, a number of bonus tracks including Grohl’s Marigold (an early indication of what the Foo Fighters would end up sounding like), Sappy, and the Albini mixes of both Heart Shaped Box and All Apologies (the former sounding better than the released version, the latter worse so we’ll call that little battle a draw). These are also included on the incredible 180gm vinyl repressing.
We also get a “lost tune” which is just an instrumental jam, demos, covers, and a full audio version of the Live and Loud gig.
Speaking of which, the DVD that has now been reissued with bonus footage from rehearsals and other gigs is as perfect an example of the power and contradictions that were coursing through Nirvana at this time. The band are extremely tight (especially with added member Pat Smear) and they seem extremely content and happy on the stage until you look and listen a bit closer. Novoselic sarcastically remarks “it’s good to see so many familiar faces” whilst a palpable change in Kurt’s mood is noticed when he starts Rape Me to cheers only for the cheers to subside when a lot of the crowd realize it’s not Teen Spirit.
The gig ends with Cobain sarcastically clapping the audience and the band destroying the set. A perfect end??????
In Utero is worthy of all the praise it has received over the years especially due to its imperfections. It has flaws, but that’s what makes it a very human record. All the great artists have flaws (Lennon could be a dick you know) and In Utero is the perfect encapsulation of its author and his own flaws. It fits into the intoxicating, inviting, yet dangerous world of Burroughs, The Velvet Underground, and The Stooges whilst keeping one foot firmly planted in the present.
Sadly, I don’t think we’ll ever see a guitar band unite a generation again for many reasons (too many to go into here) but it’s safe to say that the remaining members of Nirvana can proudly lay claim to being one of the last bands to do such a thing. They’re the reason that many thirty year olds still like loud music, still wear trainers, jeans and t-shirts, they’re the reason a lot of them discovered Bill Hicks, Iggy Pop, The Vaselines, and The Pixies.
They’re Nirvana, this is In Utero. Immerse, read up on, and enjoy this flawed masterpiece.