Friday, September 21, 2018

Nirvana's In Utero turns 25.

25 years ago today, on September 21, 1993, Nirvana released its third and last studio album, In Utero, the defiantly raw and noisy follow-up to Nevermind.

And if you really want to feel old, think about this: In Utero is an older album today than the Beatles' White Album was on the day In Utero was released!

There’s a “soulful” tribute to the album called Heart-Shaped Tracks (Spotify link). Based on the free samples, my favorite is the cover of “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” which feels true to the spirit of the song while fitting comfortably in the R ’n’ B genre.

Serve the Servants” kicks off the album perfectly with a chaotically discordant chord (the ‘90s equivalent to the beginning of “A Hard Day’s Night”?). The first line is a droll take on the band’s success: “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old.” At the end of each chorus, Kurt Cobain seemingly mocks himself for overdramatizing how he was affected by his parents’ divorce in interviews: “That legendary divorce is such a bore!” The song is unusual in that the singing in the chorus is lower and more relaxed than in the verse; the other way around is far more common.

(Here's a live performance where Kurt Cobain played a wonderfully off-kilter, anti-virtuosic guitar solo.)

Heart-Shaped Box,” the first single from the album, was perhaps the only song on In Utero that an unsuspecting listener at the time might have expected as a follow-up to the poppier Nevermind. This was one of three songs that was remixed by Scott Litt to have clearer vocals than in Steve Albini’s original mix; Krist Novoselic explained that songs like this and “All Apologies” were “gateways” to the rest of the album, which would cause more people to discover the album’s “aggressive wild sound — a true alternative record.”

Dumb” is the “Polly” of In Utero; the songs have a similar chord progression, but “Dumb” is more fully satisfying, with atmospheric cello adding depth to the soft side of the band. The cellist on this song and “All Apologies” was Kera Schaley, the only musician to play on a Nirvana studio album without being in the band.

Milk It” is an aggressively un-commercial song with shockingly dissonant guitar playing. One line is heart-breaking knowing what happened the next year: “Look on the bright side is suicide.”

Pennyroyal Tea” was going to be released as the third single from the album in April 1994 (following “All Apologies”), but the single was canceled because of Kurt Cobain’s suicide that month. He looked forward to the afterlife in an oddly non-rhyming couplet: “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/So I can sigh eternally.” He said: “The song is about a person who's beyond depressed; they’re in their death bed, pretty much.” Asked about the Leonard Cohen line, Cobain explained: “That was my therapy, when I was depressed and sick. I'd . . . listen to Leonard Cohen, which would actually make it worse.”

Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” is one of my favorite Nirvana songs, with manically oscillating guitar noise over relentlessly thumping drums. Most of the song is not quite “radio friendly,” but it gets most melodic in the bridge, with Kurt Cobain offering uncharacteristically straightforward advice: “Hate, hate your enemies/Save, save your friends/Find, find your place/Speak, speak the truth.”

All Apologies” brings the album to a bittersweet close, culminating in a meditative chant over droning guitars. Kurt Cobain had this song around since 1990, before Nevermind. When Dave Grohl heard a demo of it in the early days, he thought: “This guy has such a beautiful sense of melody — I can’t believe he’s screaming all the time.”

("All Apologies" unplugged.)