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Counterbalance No. 126: Nirvana's 'In Utero'

Self-appointed judges judge more than they have sold. They agree though, that Nirvana's 1993 swan song is the 126th most acclaimed album of all time. All in all is all we are.


In Utero

US Release: 1993-09-13
UK Release: 1993-09-12
Label: DGC

Klinger: You know, for years I've been saying that punk created a dividing line among musicians, one that extended beyond just the musical differences. I've said that pre-punk musicians were basically people of somewhat above-average intelligence pretending to be a lot smarter than they are, while musicians who came up in the aftermath of punk were people of somewhat above-average intelligence pretending to be a lot dumber than they are. I may be overgeneralizing, but it does seem that in the 1960s and '70s, our rock stars seemed to have all the answers with their acid consciousness and their gurus and whatnot. Around the time punk hit, it became pretty clear to younger generations that easy answers only led to more questions. Which brings us to Nirvana, whom we last heard from way up top at No. 3 on the Great List.

In Utero is the work of a group (and a songwriter in particular) who has realized that stardom—however it had come to be defined by 1993—was nowhere near the ticket out that it was promised to be. "Teenage angst has paid off well, now I'm bored and old", the first lyrics we hear on what was possibly the most hotly anticipated albums of the early '90s, immediately present In Utero as a state of the union message for both the band and the nascent Alternative Nation, and to my ears that's what makes the album so compelling. Even more compelling than Nevermind. There, I said it.

Mendelsohn: That is an interesting insight into the dynamics of intelligence and music, Klinger. It reminds of something I was told in regard to two popular sitcoms—The Big Bang Theory and Arrested Development -- one was a commercial success while the other was a critical hit. The Big Bang Theory is a show about smart people written for dumb people to enjoy (cue canned laughter) while Arrested Development was a show about dumb people aimed toward, let’s say, a more esoteric slice of the viewing market (cue obscure inside joke no one will understand). One show is riding high in syndication, the other was canceled before its time (but is apparently being resurrected). Now, I don't watch either of those shows, and I'm not sure what that says about me, but I think we could, within your assertion, loosely apply the same framework to Nirvana.

Nevermind was the over-produced, commercial hit that every executive dreams about. But once Nirvana got around to making In Utero they realized they didn't want to be the band that made Nevermind and didn't particularly like the trappings that came with it. As a result, In Utero is the dumbed-down record made for the smart listener, as Nirvana tried to find the space where they were comfortable making music they actually wanted to hear. And in that way, Nirvana went from releasing a record that completely changed the landscape of the face of music in 1991, a record I personally can't stand, to recording an album with In Utero that was far more grown up and almost the antithesis of what they helped to build just two short years earlier. And not only do I agree with you that In Utero is the more compelling Nirvana record, I would even go so far as to say that this record is quite possibly the best alternative rock album to be released in the 1990s.

Klinger: Well, I'm certainly not as dismissive of Nevermind as you are—I still maintain that it's a solid collection of songs, and of course it one of only a handful of records that irrevocably changed the culture. Plus, it's impossible to hear In Utero without thinking of it as first and foremost a reaction to the unprecedented success of Nevermind. That's mainly to do with Cobain's willfully perverse approach this time around, much of which comes across as a pointed dig at the industry. He comes up with another set of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" chord changes ("That's good", says DGC) then calls the song "Rape Me" ("No, that's bad..."). Of course, even calling a song "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" must have made those label guys feel sad inside.

But back to your potentially controversial statement: What is it about In Utero that makes it the best '90s alt-rock album (and again, wow)?

Mendelsohn: Can you name a better "alternative" record? There is no doubt that Nirvana could never truly match the sea-change that was Nevermind. That record presented a fundamental shift within the music industry that is still being felt today. And I'm not saying Nevermind isn't a solid collection of songs -- I just don't like listening to them.

In Utero is by far Nirvana's best album and probably the apex of alternative rock as a whole. Within this record you have three solid singles—"Heart-Shaped Box", "Rape Me", and "All Apologies,"—all of which are a side-step away from the focused noise of Nevermind and offer a better entry point into the updated world of garage rock that Nirvana was now living in. The rest of the album perfectly displays the dichotomy of Cobain's song-writing, flipping between the orchestral pop of "Dumb" and the avant-rock of "Milk It", with healthy doses of feedback in between. Nirvana also used the record to send a message to the music business, as you noted with song titles like "Rape Me" and "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter", which was neither radio friendly nor going to shift any units, effectively pointing out that they knew how the game was played but didn't necessarily like the rules. I think In Utero represents the point where alternative music became self-aware, if there is such a thing, and realized that no amount of feedback or uncouth song-titles will get them their souls back after they had sold it to the man to make a record. This idea is far from new, but I think there is a tipping point in every movement, revolution or whatever, where the objective is co-opted and turned from its original course.

Klinger: Of course, some part of Cobain's struggle was his reluctance to be part of any kind of movement, regardless of how much the media tried to make him the spokesman for his generation. But it's that ambivalence that makes In Utero such an important record. We started to touch on this a little bit when we talked about Pavement two weeks ago, but it's probably even more applicable here: for Generation-X musicians like Kurt Cobain, there was so little left to rebel against. Our generation was the first whose parents (and other authority figures) liked rock music. And as such, they got a lot better at marketing it all to us.

Like a lot of people our age, Nirvana was keenly aware of how marketing was making us feel manipulated, and on In Utero they seemed to be doing a lot to subvert that while still remaining in the system. So not only do you have a much more abrasive sound courtesy of Steve Albini (which is noticeable regardless of whatever remixing jiggery-pokery took place), but there are little choices all the way through the album that act as thumbs in the eye to the rock-worshipers who came before. That willfully terrible series of random pickings that Cobain passes off as a solo in "Milk It" is a prime example.

Mendelsohn: And that's part of the reason why I think In Utero may be the best alternative record released in the 1990s. Alternative Music was a made up term, pushed by the label and assigned as the soundtrack for the generation. There are a lot of bands that played into that image of alternative as it was manufactured by the labels, including Nirvana—most notably with Nevermind. In Utero was Nirvana's attempt to be an alternative to Alternative, not just with willful disdain for the industry but in the songwriting as well. Cobain mixed sunny pop elements that harken back to the Beatles with the harshest noise possible while eschewing slick production values for a more grounded, organic approach.

It is Albini's recording work that puts this album over the top for me. This record is Albini's greatest commercial success and it came at a time when the alternative movement had been completely co-opted by the labels as they used their cookie-cutter production and hefty marketing budgets to pack the airwaves. Albini did what he was good at—he put Nirvana in a room, let them play their music, and recorded Nirvana being the band they wanted to be. The result (after some hurt feelings and a little remixing) is an album that stands in marked contrast to the prevailing creative winds of the time and is not only Nirvana's best album but one of the best to come of out the 1990s. I'm a little surprised to find this record on the outside looking in on the Top 100 of the Great List.

Klinger: Well, I think that a lot of critics had trouble wrapping their heads around the notion that this wasn't Nevermind 2: Electric Grungaloo. But to me, In Utero sounds very much like the work of a band and a songwriter in transition. I don't typically encourage the parlor game of trying to suss out what an artist would have done if he or she had lived, (I generally operate under the assumption that their career arcs would mirror those of their surviving compatriots, with the long tail end of semi-relevance that goes with it), but with Cobain I honestly think that he might have been able to challenge his listeners for another while to come. And I think it's OK to be sad and more than a little miffed that we didn't get a chance to see that happen.

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