“Teenage angst has paid off well; now I’m bored and old.”
We know, Kurt Cobain, believe you me, we KNOW. Over the years of Nirvana’s dominance, you’ve made that abundantly fucking clear.
That little snippet is the opening line of “Serve the Servants,” the first song from Nirvana’s final album, In Utero. It really sums up a lot of Cobain’s attitude. Nirvana’s success got him a lot of nice things, but he thought the band had reached its creative peak, and the adulation he got was coming from an enormous audience he didn’t particularly like. He made music all angsty on Nevermind, which sold a lot and made him a ton of money, but what next?
Well, if several songs on In Utero are any indication, apparently what came next was laying his anguished screaming in many layers of computer noise. Of course, it was the early 90’s, when we were all fascinated by these cool little magic boxes, so this shouldn’t be some kind of great shock. We used them a lot in movies, after all, and hell, every movie in the 90’s had a tech-savvy computer wizard – morals optional – who could solve every problem from war to hunger by hacking into the right computer. So why not engage in a little sonic experimentation with com-poo-tohrs? This electronic screaming flat out destroys “Scentless Apprentice,” which is a shame because the live version of “Scentless Apprentice” is so awesome. It can be heard on From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah.
Cobain doesn’t waste any time presenting us with the screaming broken guitar routine either. That sucker is dominant throughout In Utero, and it never has any twists or turns that are able to suddenly make it listenable. Well, In Utero was an album that Nirvana said was going to weed out the true fans from the posers or some such. In other words, it was made to alienate listeners. The Screaming Broken Guitar is definitely a step in the proper direction if that was the point. The first two songs ought to weed out plenty of listeners expecting a Nevermind rerun. “Serve the Servants” is a fairly decent song, but not what fans of Nevermind had come to expect from Nirvana. “Scentless Apprentice” is the perfect storm of awful, and includes all the hallmarks of the things that suck about Nirvana: High, screaming, broken guitars, electronically layered screaming, and many moments of quick off-noting. I think it’s meant to give In Utero a rough feel, but it doesn’t work, and it in fact feeds into my impression of Kurt Cobain being the world’s earliest hipster; he paid attention to whatever was mainstream for the sole purpose of doing the opposite. The random breaks in “Scentless Apprentice” come off as a little too convenient to not be strategically placed.
“Heart-Shaped Box” is the first sign of competency and coherency on In Utero. If Nirvana were a hair band from the 80’s, “Heart-Shaped Box” would be the power ballad they would have released in the second act of their flashpan superstardom. It’s darker than the ballads of the 80’s and more stripped down to bare basics, of course, and I have trouble believing it’s even a love song. I can’t figure out what it’s about. What it is, though, is the first sign that there’s going to be some real audial highs to come off the album. “Rape Me” follows through on the promise of “Heart-Shaped Box” and also brings back the Nevermind sound buyers of In Utero were presumably hoping to hear more of.
For all the prettiness delivered by In Utero, however, consistency is something Nirvana can never seem to get a real grasp of. Take “Pennyroyal Tea” for example. This is one of the most underrated songs Nirvana ever recorded, and one which earned a slot in the band’s famous Unplugged in New York set. It’s a great song, but it seems almost at war with itself, giving us acoustic verses and electric hooks. The extremes don’t mesh well, and the band never really seems to settle on a direction it wants to take the song.
That describes the very contrasting experience of trying to listen to In Utero. There’s a lot of amazing music on the album, but also a lot of unlistenable shit. Cobain complained that Nirvana’s first album, Bleach, was choppy, but that album is at least streamlined in some odd way by its blandness. One minute you’re listening to “All Apologies,” arguably the very culmination of everything Nirvana was capable of doing. The next, you’re listening to “tourette’s,” the longest 95 seconds of rhythmic screaming and electronic noises you could ever be subjected to. In Utero doesn’t start trying to forge any real identity for itself until “Rape Me,” which is the fourth song on the album, and even when it does, it seems to periodically jump and hiccup. “Milk It” is aggressively bad, for example, and it highlights everything bad I think about the band – incoherent mumbles, rhythmic screaming, no real musical chord. “Francis Farmer Wll Have Her Revenge on Seattle,” in spite of the occasional high-sqealing guitar, has a hard hook, memorable vocals, and a great bassline.
I wouldn’t have a problem with inconsistency if In Utero had more songs worth listening to. But a large chunk of In Utero sounds a little like it’s trying to rip itself off to some point. “Scentless Apprentice,” and “tourette’s” seem to suffer from that weird AC/DC syndrome where they have a suspicious amount in common and you start to think the band got stuck for ideas. “Very Ape” sounds like one of Nirvana’s older songs, “Breed.” “Dumb” has the same problem; it comes off as more than a passing version of “Polly” from Nevermind. “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” is endless drowned vocals, broken guitars (if you’re sensing my theme of hating the broken guitar, you’ve got me pegged), and general nonsensical and meandering instrumentals. While it does feature one of Dave Grohl’s more emotive drum performances, it isn’t nearly enough to rescue the song.
Nirvana wanted to go back to roots. They wanted to drive fans away and experiment. Musical experiments, however, don’t necessarily mean forgetting how to play the damned instruments. It Utero has some powerful and poignant pieces, but it’s not as streamlined as Bleach, the band’s notoriously weird first album. It’s certainly nowhere near the atmosphere Nevermind is lounging in. It constantly amazes me how rock critics are still lined up in an eternal contest to fawn the most over Nirvana and come up with the most creative justification for lionizing a band that gets more credit than it really deserves. It Utero gets a very reluctant recommendation for the sake of completing a Nirvana collection for its good moments. You won’t miss much by passing on it, unless the electric version of “Pennyroyal Tea” is that important to you.