What else should I be – In Utero twenty years on

by Steve

Kurt Cobain in a drumkit, as he was inclined to do from time to time

I can still remember buying In Utero, on cassette, in my local Our Price. I can remember the anticipation that surrounded its release. There was rumours it was going to unlistenable, that Steve Albini had presided over a messy, noisy session and had done nothing to make it more palatable. The sheen of Nevermind would be gone, replaced by a murky punk. It sounded awesome – the idea of a hugely successful band making an album that would alienate all but their most devoted fans greatly appealed to my teenage self. Loving bands as a teenager is all about having those bands to yourself. They are your secret, your refuge, your way of knowing that while you might feel like you’re on your own you have something your peers can’t get their hands on, something they don’t understand. That is obviously harder when you love the biggest band in the world.

I put the cassette in my stereo. I loved it immediately. You don’t really listen to a new album from your favourite band with a critical ear, do you? It wasn’t as impenetrable as I’d been led to believe. While it certainly wasn’t Nevermind, it wasn’t afraid of melody either. The band didn’t sound muddy, they sounded properly forceful. Some of the lyrics were oblique, or hard to discern, or both. But some had some real clarity, and beauty. I played that cassette a lot.

Which is all my rather clumsy and indulgent way of making a probably rather obvious point – In Utero was not always viewed through the prism of Kurt Cobain’s death. There’s probably a slightly less obvious point to be made too. In Utero still doesn’t need to viewed through that prism.

It is easy to look at works of art within the context of who created them. It can certainly offer insight. Yet there is a risk that you end up with a reductive opinion of that work. Suicide tends to overshadow everything that person did in their life, but it shouldn’t. They might have been suicidal all their lives, they might not, yet we shouldn’t reduce everything they did to just being a prelude to a final act. There is something simplistic, not to say macabre, about listening to In Utero (or Closer, or The Holy Bible, etc) and considering it as one long suicide note, scanning the lyric sheet for clues and pointers like some of our terrible, morbid detective. It misses the bigger picture.

In Utero is an album about fame. It is an album about marriage. It is the classic reaction against a massive worldwide hit album.

Serve The Servants is a brilliant opener, “Teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old”. Throughout the album Cobain plays with ideas of fame and especially the perception of himself as the sad, depressed voice of a generation, the figure who had already been parodied, was already a Cultural Figure people thought they knew, and thought they could criticise. There’s black humour in that opening line – essentially, I’ve made my money from my angst, what now? He is aware of his persona, of people’s misconceptions, and plays up to them, distorts them, makes fun of them. Heart Shaped Box‘s refrain of “Hey! Wait! I’ve got a new complaint!” could easily be a parody of an earlier Nirvana song. I’m pretty sure it was not meant to be taken at face-value.

Rape Me rips off the Smells Like Teen Spirit riff while confronting the issue of fans not getting the nuances of the likes of Polly on the last record. I’m sure those fans still didn’t get it. Cobain was always more sardonic and deadpan than first appearances suggested. You could miss the joke. Once you got the joke Nirvana were a lot more satisfying, you could see self-awareness where once you saw self-pity.

Cobain acknowledges the conundrum he faces, of how to record a follow-up to an album like Nevermind without sounding like a phoney. If you’re rich, successful, married, starting a family, you can’t tread over the same old ground. He sings “I miss the comfort in being sad” and in just a few words articulates the weird world you must inhabit when you go from sleeping in cars to knocking Michael Jackson off the top of the album charts.

It would have been easy, I guess, to write and record Nevermind Part Two. But there is something fascinating in listening to an album that so clearly is about the previous album and the struggle of following it up, the huge pressures of being a major label band expected to have another multi-million selling record. Cobain solves the Phoniness Problem by articulating life post-fame, the strange mix of sadness and absence of sadness, the difficulty in finding new avenues to explore when everyone wants you to regurgitate the same-old, the compromise between persona and person. What could have been an indulgent mess (as post-fame albums often are – ‘poor me and my gold discs’) was instead compelling, urgent, meaningful.

In Utero clearly fights against those market pressures, even though the label got their way and remixed a couple of tracks. Yet the funny thing is that Cobain, despite some of his best efforts, just couldn’t resist a great melody, or a great hook. Radio Friendly Unit Shifter is designed to be quite the opposite, yet has a soaring chorus. Naturally, the band only play it once, a deliberate and understandable sabotage. Serve The Servants, Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle, Very Ape, all noisy, all great tunes.  The pop heart of Cobain sneaks out from amidst the noise.

And it is not all just noise either. There are hints at a more plaintive, mature direction, the “MTV Unplugged” direction, I guess. Dumb, Pennyroyal Tea, All Apologies are melodic, restrained, beautiful. In Utero is a record chronicling a band developing real nuance and depth, a band that could have gone in any number of directions.

From the title on down the album is also about ideas of motherhood, marriage, femininity. “Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back” is a phrase that would keep an analyst occupied for several months. Cobain might sing of being “Married, buried”, yet he is also painfully aware of the huge speculation and gossip that surrounded his marriage to Courtney Love – “That legendary divorce is such a bore”, although that line in the context of Serve The Servants could just as easily apply to his parents’ divorce. Cobain seems to working through a lot of conflicting thoughts through the record. There is tenderness and there is confusion. There is no simple narrative here.

It seems natural to focus on Cobain, yet In Utero is very much a band album. The genius of Steve Albini’s recording is that it sounds like they are playing live in a room, and playing off of one another. There is not the compression or sheen or general distancing tactics of modern major label production. Dave Grohl’s drumming is propulsive, driving the whole album forward, yet is always sympathetic to the songs. Krist Novoselic probably puts in his best performance in Nirvana, the fulcrum between the two forces of Cobain and Grohl, supporting them, pulling them together. There is a warm, analogue looseness that brings you closer.

In Utero is ultimately an incredibly human album, articulating the confusion, despair and hope we all feel as human beings. The sound and content make for what seems to be a completely honest document, far from the bullshit and phoniness of major label fame and fortune. While I can’t help but wonder what they might have done next (it is an obvious and old question to mull over) the record seems to work best on its own terms, and certainly as something more complex and empathetic than an album-as-suicide-note. Considering the circumstances it was recorded in, it is a massive achievement.

So, twenty years on there is the inevitable deluxe unit shifter reissue, with remixed tracks, rarities, the usual. It is excellent, and one for the completists, but it is far from essential. In Utero doesn’t feel like the kind of album to listen to through high-end speakers, unpicking the variations between mixes. It is the kind of album to be listened to on a beat-up cassette player, when the band means everything to you and makes you feel a little less alone.

Image from Jamie Anderson, via Flickr