Friday, April 4, 2008

No. 439: In Utero

Band: Nirvana
Album: In Utero
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Recorded with Steve Albini, the final proper Nirvana album is dingy and great. "Heart Shaped Box" was the lead single, but hardly the great song, as the album also had "Rape Me," "Dumb," "Scentless Apprentice" and the classic "All Apologies." Nirvana's look towards harder rock was tailor-made for Albini's touch and he did not fail.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: It's a great album and should be higher.
Best song: "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" is great, great, great.
Worst song: "Milk It" is mediocre.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

The first words sung on "In Utero:"

Teenage angst has paid off well. Now, I'm bored and old.

Cobain's lyrics on "In Utero" have two main themes. Several songs deal with medical issues, apparatuses and such. "Scentless Apprentice" talks of medical issues (the song is based on a horror novel), "Milk It" and "Pennyroyal Tea" both speak of tonics. Hell, the album's artwork is full of womb-influenced.

The other theme is the media and fame. Cobain references his wife's image in the press (the "My favorite inside source" is a nod to the Vanity Fair story alleging -- via an unnamed source -- that Courtney Love was using heroin while pregnant), Frances Farmer's problems and, well, the first lines of the album. The biggest dig is "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter," two phrases mashed together to indicate the vapid, economic-based commercial radio formula.


The saga of Albini's entrance into Nirvan's orbit is an odd one. This is, after all, a guy who was not a fan of Nirvana. Albin has often said he'll record just about anyone who asks -- he did, after all, record Bush's "Razorblade Suitcase" -- and "In Utero" was another one of those projects. Let's have our good friend Wikipedia tell it:

Months before the band had even approached Albini about the recording, rumors had been circulating that he was slated to record the next Nirvana album. Albini eventually sent a disclaimer to the British music press refuting the allegations, only to get the call from Nirvana's management a few days later. Although Albini considered Nirvana to be "R.E.M. with a fuzzbox" and "an unremarkable version of the Seattle sound," he told Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad he accepted because he felt sorry for the band, whom he perceived to be "the same sort of people as all the small-fry bands I deal with" at the mercy of their record company.

Albini used his usual habit of only listening to the band while recording, choosing to keep the label people at bay.

The actual tracks turned out to sound far too much like an Albini record for anyone's liking. The vocals were, of course, too low in the mix. The bass guitar sounded off. So, despite Albini's touch, the band remastered some of the songs with Scott Litt before the album was actually sent to stores.

What would the original, Albini-produ-er,engineered record sound like? Would it be harder and less accessible? Is Albini's style that bad for a hook-heavy band like Nirvana?

Who knows? I'd like to hear that record, though.


"In Utero" is sometimes looked at as some sort of oracle into Cobain's death. That's really stupid. Cobain was always on the precipice of suicide and/or an overdose. Nevertheless, it's a fine album, straddling the line of punk rock and catchy pop rock.


kellydwyer said...

Redneck, dropout, heavy metal. Music for sneaking cigarettes during lunch break in junior high.

padraig said...

Nah, Albini's style works for bands with hooks; Surfer Rosa, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, even the Jesus Lizard (see bassline to "Monkey Trick"). I imagine the original mixes would've been a little closer to the Black Flag/Melvins end of the spectrum and further from Vaselines/Pixies. And I like Bleach but I'm not one of those dudes who says it was Nirvana's best album just to be contrary. They were in do no wrong territory by that point anyway. I'd bet Kurt's ultimate fantasy, like many people was to make his own Raw Power.

And I don't know how I never realized this before but I was just strike by the simlilarities between Nirvana and the Jesus & Mary Chain - burying ridiculously catchy pop hooks beneath walls of noise. not to mention the being totally disaffected thing, and on a probably related note, heroin.

bob_vinyl said...

After the success of Nevermind, Cobain felt the pressure to be brilliant. He tried and failed. Then he killed himself to avoid being caught pulling a fast one.

padraig said...

bob - that statement is so absurd that I can only assume you're making fun of people who would espouse that kind of cheap, stupid pop pyschology. if, you're serious, well...

i should clarify too. by "do no wrong" i wasn't suggesting Nirvana were infallible, just that by the time Insecticide came out they were pretty much guaranteed both critical and commerical success no matter what they did.

bob_vinyl said...

Nirvana was in the right place at the right time. Bleach was a good grunge album. Nevermind was a bit better, because it managed to incorporate some nice hooks. But In Utero was at best a noble effort to push himself and at worst a bloated self-indulgence of his ego. Either way, it turned out poorly. Of course, I was kidding about him killing himself, because we all know his lovely wife had him murdered. The tragedy of his death though promised that In Utero would always be safe. To me, it's the Emperor's New Clothes of 90s rock. Everyone's afraid to admit that it isn't brilliant.

Garry Shuck said...

Conspiracy theories, bloated ego trips, and suicide as a method to escape failure. Bob, you're deluded, and that's what I love about you.

If you dig deep enough into the various biographies out there, you get the sense that Kurt wrote In Utero as an attempt to maintain his sense of punk rock credibility and answer the criticisms (whether internal or external) that he had sold out with Nevermind.

"Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" is probably my favorite Nirvana song. "blanket acne'd with cigarette burns", just brilliant. Tourette's is as punk as it gets.