A Masterpiece Will Only Take You to Your Next Album

[30 August 2012]

By Jeffrey Thiessen

A funny thing has happened to me the last few years. I started believing Nirvana’s In Utero was a better album than Nevermind. This conclusion wasn’t based on pertinent study and compare/contrast models, though. Instead, it was beat into my brain through brutish peer pressure. Peer pressure so effective, I didn’t even know it was happening until it was too late. You have no idea how many people would say this stuff to me, as though it was some obvious truth everyone now accepts as Seattle gospel.

“I still listen to Nevermind here and there but In Utero pretty much kills it in every major way.”

“There are at least three tracks on In Utero that are better than ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.”

Nevermind sucks, it is total pop garbage! In Utero is a goddamn punk masterpiece!”

You get the idea, just a bunch of ridiculous horseshit. The thing is, though, that crap started seeping into my subconscious and I found myself spouting off similar sentiments!  For the longest time, I’d auto-choose the sonic boom of “Scentless Apprentice” over any of the iconic, seminal tunes off Nevermind. It’s not embarrassing I chose In Utero for so long. But what is embarrassing is how I reached that conclusion, and none of it was using my own fundamental criterion I’ve used for years, for even the most basic record analysis.

To be clear, I’m not saying you can’t make the argument that In Utero is a superior album. You can, and it’s not that difficult. Trust me, I’ve heard enough attempts and it never really did sound like they were reaching. But it’s a bit shocking/borderline appalling to me how it seems to have come out the bizarre, knee-jerk victor when the two efforts are discussed in any capacity. I don’t think it is better. I think Nevermind is a flawless masterpiece, and while In Utero is pretty much as good a follow-up as one could expect from a band in Nirvana’s, shall we say, precarious position could be expected to produce, it’s not a flawless masterpiece. Not to me.

So I guess the question I’m asking is: why does In Utero seem to have the consensus?  Also, before I go on, I should clarify that I’m not just judging from my circle of friends, I’ve perused a wide variety of reviews and Nirvana message boards as well. It feels weird defending an album like Nevermind, but I suppose I’ll have to if I want my argument to hold any water.

Nevermind has “Teen Spirit” on it. “Teen Spirit” is masterful, and nothing on In Utero can touch it. I don’t care how many times MTV played the song, and how sick of it you are. It’s just unmatched by anything in the 1990s. That’s my star witness right there. Kurt Cobain used to brag “There are no ‘Teen Spirits’ on In Utero”. And that’s a good thing, why?  That song gave millions of disillusioned kids a voice; I’m failing to see what in the fuck could be problematic about that endgame. Popularity wasn’t just a problem with him, it was soul-crushing.

There’s certainly a dark side associated with fame and mainstream popularity, but that’s the only side Cobain saw. It seems to me when he closed his eyes and thought about his legacy, he didn’t ever see a kid alone in his room rocking out to the opening chords of “Teen Spirit”. He only saw frat boys using Nevermind as a soundtrack to their date-rape parties. Through this the seeds of In Utero were planted, and to me that makes the recording process of Nevermind much more pure and untainted. There was no agenda there. In Utero was trying to burn everything down. It had a plan, and that plan was destruction.

And what a battering ram of an album it was. From what I’ve read, I know Kurt was happier with it than Nevermind. It’s got that barb-wire guitar attack producer Steve Albini was sort of famous for, a lot of screaming, and was basically way more inaccessible than Nevermind. I’ve also read Kurt always felt an intense tie to the punk community, and did everything he could to strengthen this bond, which became kinda difficult you know, when you have an album that sells ten million copies. I understand why it was important to him; that’s the ideology he grew up admiring on a very concentrated level. And while I’ll concede that’s him to a large extent, there’s a big chunk of him that yearned, and excelled at, writing great pop songs. It’s just that simple.

This is why 1994’s MTV Unplugged in New York worked so remarkably well, and it’s also why Kurt was so uncomfortable recording it. He absolutely hated that side of him. In Utero was railing against the gift that made him special to millions, and for me, that’s the primary reason it’s a fantastic betrayal of his own artistic impulses. Kurt couldn’t completely avoid them, as In Utero contains the brilliant “All Apologies” and “Pennyroyal Tea”, but you’ll note those songs exist on an island, and create a flawed flow to the album. It seems simplistic to classify In Utero as consisting of five noise outbursts and seven pop-heavy anthems. But that’s what it is. Nevermind saw him channel those impulses into a working punk aesthetic, and to me there’s where the brilliance lied with Nirvana’s breakthrough smash record, and that’s the source of an inherent disconnect in their follow-up.

At some point, Nevermind was so overplayed by everyone in North America, In Utero became a welcome reprieve. I understand that. It became cool to like that noisy Nirvana record, and fairly uncool to prefer its catchy predecessor. If you like Nevermind, you’re part of the problem, right?  Well here are some cold, hard realities all you In Utero whores are going to have to accept:

1) Kurt was a Beatles fan. This is well-documented. He loved just writing a good song. Not vicious punk sonic attacks mind you; just a well-written song. This was apparent when he was asked to produce the Melvins, and he was very disappointed with their efforts in regards to sitting down and writing quality, thought-out music. This was also when he as at his most whacked-out on dope, too. He still wanted more, even when he was fucking nodding out. He loved the punk M.O., but he always had something more churning away inside him, whether he wanted to admit it or not. We saw it. He couldn’t embrace it on any consistent level without betraying his core values, and that ultimately was his undoing. Unless his wife had him killed, but that’s another topic for another day…

2) Nevermind for the most part, just had better songs than In Utero. They aren’t as forceful, but they are just superior efforts. Better songs = better album. I say that without fear of contradiction. Sure there are masterpieces like “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Scentless Apprentice”, but the rest can’t match any of Nevermind’s strongest material, which is basically the whole album. It also wasn’t nearly as calculated either, and to me that makes it more punk than anything on their Albini record (the opening clever line on “Serve the Servants” was just about the clearest indication we could get in terms of Cobain delivering a carefully-crafted mission statement for In Utero).

I know, I know, it’s more fun to choose In Utero. It’s the sexy pick. You’ll make friends extolling the virtues of this over Nevermind. It’s more fun to talk about. But do you know why that is?  It’s because Nevermind was so fucking awesome, we talked about it so much there is nothing else left to say. In Utero didn’t enter our hearts the same way. It carved its way in. It entered on its own terms, and those terms that didn’t even really bring out the best from the ‘90s’ most talented songwriter. He wanted it to be his best, and probably liked it when Steve Albini said “All the pussies who liked Nevermind will hate this album”. What Steve didn’t realize was the lead singer of Nirvana was a bit of a pussy himself. This brought out their best music, and as someone who grew up on the band, I just wish he was more of a pussy on his last album. Then we might be able to have a real discussion as to which is better.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/162283-nirvana/