Wednesday, 25 June 2008


I really can’t remember if I bought this CD myself or whether mum bought it for me. It was probably the latter and would probably have been from Woolworths in Clacton. It arrived during the hardest year of my life and the most difficult period as the summer of 1993 proved something of challenge as I exited school, spewed out into the real world with no real education, hopes or prospects. For a long time all it felt like I had was the music around me which helped take my mind of being stuck in a Podunk village in Essex terrified of what the world had for me (or rather what it hadn’t).
In Utero is probably the best of the three Nirvana studio albums. With Steve Albini at the helm managed to better harness and capture the real sound of the band while in comparison Butch Vig (then Andy Wallace) only appeared to gloss it, at times potentially declawing and defanging it. Bear in mind that this was the big record that highlighted how Albini’s credit would regard him as “recorder” rather than “producer”. Whether these were the best songs in their catalogue is open to debate but certainly these were the best sounding.
There was so much rumour regarding their album ahead of time. Again as with Nevermind and Andy Wallace, as reports filtered out that DGC were not necessarily completely happy with the sound of the record Scott Litt was eventually brought in to “soothe” some more of the friendlier tracks. This event however came after stories/tales/rumours that people at the record label had described the album as “unlistenable” and it was looking like their was going to be two versions of the album in the record label friendly CD and the band approved vinyl version. In the end it never quite came to this and (almost) everyone were just about happy with the outcome.
The first thing that is noticeable is the sound of the drums. These are the Albini analogue drums, the part of any band’s sound that has become his trademark. For whatever music crimes Dave Grohl has since committed in the name of crowd pleasing cheesiness on this record his playing sounds immense.
Listened to at the time of being a spluttering teenager the opening words of “teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old” were such tangible poetry. “Serve The Servants” is a great album opener, probably a better opener than “Smells Like Teen Spirit” because it doesn’t see the album shoot its load immediately. With a huge crash the jarring procession begins in a powerful exertion. By the time the song reaches the chorus the listener is sold.
The intensity continues with “Scentless Apprentice” which provides one of the heaviest moments in the Nirvana songbook and career. Noted for being the first Nirvana track to contain equal song writing shares it begins with a drumbeat lifted straight from “Immigrant Song” and it never relents. Again the guitars sound very different to both Nevermind and Bleach as the song is soon chewing up the scenery with a riff to wreck any occasion before the sound descends into the mania of the chorus as Cobain’s vocals are as insane as anywhere else in their arsenal. As the song nears conclusion it begins bending strange shapes in a freshest manner. This is easily one of the best Nirvana songs for ageing without wrinkles.
In Utero is not quite the singles album that Nevermind managed to ultimately be. Only one song had a video attached to it (“Heart-Shaped Box”) while two tracks were squeezed together for a double A-side affair (“All Apologies” and “Rape Me”) and sadly a final single (“Pennyroyal Tea”) just didn’t make it out in time before Cobain killed himself. Of the quartet “Heart-Shaped Box” proves the most angular but remained faithful to the quiet loud quiet formula that was in a way their trademark.
“Rape Me” is not a good song. In some supermarkets in America the sleeve of In Utero was actually changed to rename this song “Waif Me” apparently but even away from such nanny state inclinations the language of the song is a bit silly in its self loathing. Sure the words sat comfortably against the bleak worldview of Cobain both before and after his death but as an individual grows over the years the passion and impact of this song just does not, indeed it actually becomes quite difficult to listen to and take seriously which is a shame as the song structure itself is another decent slab of the new Nirvana sound at the time. Were the supermarkets right to be so offended in the first place? Then there was the controversy with the song at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. Moving on.
Thankfully the album soon picks up steam with “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle”, a song quite similar sounding to “Serve The Servants” in its motion and delivery. Here it would appear that Cobain be comparing the treatment and apparent madness of his wife Courtney to that of hounded thirties/forties actress Frances Farmer. How little did he know. With a chorus of “I miss the comfort of being sad” this was seemingly a declaration of despising popularity in addition to being dismissive of being happy. It works on so many levels, whether intentional or not this was a person that appeared to know his audience.
As with the bookends “Polly” and “Something In The Way” on Nevermind here came “Dumb”. This song never really resonated with me, it was too light and soppy. I would happily quote “my heart is broke but I have some glue” when really I just still wanted to destroy. And then with that the first side comes to a close.
In the grand tradition of beginning side two with a blast (“Negative Creep” and “Territorial Pissings”) the breezy “Very Ape” plunders into proceedings with a guitar sound that first rattles and then begins to whine like a wind instrument as the momentum of the song cheerily builds to rousing declaration of “I’m very ape, I’m very nice”. With great lines such as “if you ever need anything please don’t, hesitate to ask someone else first” really sums up for me the slacker mentality and true inclinations of Generation X. I always wondered if “Very Ape” came from the comic book Eightball which had its own branding of Value Ape.
With this comes “Milk It” the second heaviest blast on the record and the possessor of the most menacing basslines that Novoselic would ever deliver in a Nirvana shirt. The eventual explosion of guitars is far from subtle as it cuts through proceedings and endangers species (“I own my own pet virus, I get to pet and name her”). The line “look on the bright side of suicide” would prove somewhat troubling six months later.
“Pennyroyal Tea” was another song that seemed so meaningful to Cobain but as with a few other selections on this album it fails to age well. I think it is in the gestures of self loathing that ultimately prove difficult to maintain in any walk of life. To choose this song as a single would seem a belligerent decision even though the “Leonard Cohen after world” reference might appeal to a new crowd of people (our parents).
To this day “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” remains one of my favourite Nirvana songs. I fear that in the mind of Kurt this makes me something of a mark as for him (as per the song title) this song was an obvious no-brainer as the name suggests it may have been written on autopilot. Then again a song as good as this is not going to be an easy composition. I think the synch for me was the live version from the MTV concert that opened with the band emerging to squeals of white noise and feedback before Dave did a click track and suddenly the band tore into the number at the drop of a hat creating one of the most exciting and explosive openings to any live set anywhere in the history of music.
From here the albums ends with the pairing of “Pennyroyal Tea” and “All Apologies”, two singles (albeit one eventually not released) and two of the older songs from the collection. “Pennyroyal Tea” never really did it for me, it was too dry and too down. As I say the Leonard Cohen reference is nice but it aches too much in self-loathing, casting feminist imagery that in this case you can’t help but picture written with regards to Courtney. Similarly “All Apologies” hasn’t aged well. Again most people’s first experience of the song was one year earlier at Reading 92 and by the time it reached this recording the lyrics had been changed and it just didn’t feel as special as it initially did. It remains one of the sweetest and most earnest songs by Kurt but through its existence the song only appeared to get lighter with each variation/version (culminating with being a highlight of the MTV Unplugged set). I just like the noise is all.
Tacked onto the end once more the band drops a hidden track, although this time around it is less of a surprise being included in the tracklisting. “Gallons Of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through The Strip” arrives with the disclaimer “devalued American dollar purchase incentive track” and sarcastic suggestion that it wasn’t necessarily supposed to make the final cut. Unlike “Endless Nameless” their famous hidden track this is something of a more cohesive jam along the lines of Velvet Underground that sees Cobain mumbling out some “lyrics” that equally sound made up on the spot. It’s a hazy affair but ultimately it rocks and isn’t an act of diminish or devaluation at all. Silly fucker.
With that it all ends on a noisy high. In Utero is without a good record. I think it has a better sound than the other two studio records and some of the heaviest material in the Nirvana cannon but it probably doesn’t have the song writing hooks of Nevermind. Dare I say that I feel a few of the songs here have not aged handsomely (I’m looking at you “Rape Me”, “Dumb” and “Pennyroyal Tea”). That said were my record collection on fire this would be the Nirvana record I would reach for.
Thesaurus moment: zenith.

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