Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘In Utero’ by anti-posterboy, posterboys Nirvana.
There has to be something ironic in the fact that an album which was intended as a big “Fuck you” to the music industry has gotten a commercial re-release to celebrate its twentieth anniversary. At some point the music execs must have decided that they couldn’t care less if the music is pointedly designed to piss them off, as long as the fans lap it up. Although maybe that was always the case. But, Nirvana has always invited this kind of duality of interpretation.
When Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl recorded ‘Nevermind’ they were a small band on Seattle’s grunge scene that few people had ever heard of. When the time came to record the follow-up they were MTV superstars. Nirvana may have captured the imaginations of a generation with grunge anthems like Smells like Teen Spirit, but it is ‘In Utero’ where Cobain fully expressed his own state of mind.
‘In Utero’ is a collection of music written by a guy who had Black Flag and Leonard Cohen records side by side in his collection. It has the raw scratchy aesthetic of the hardcore punk scene shot through with archly incisive lyrical twists.
The stripped-back clarity which makes ‘In Utero’ shine much brighter and burn much deeper than ‘Bleach’ or ‘Nevermind’ ever did, owes as much to producer Steve Albini as it does to the band. He was the one who cut the band off from the army of record execs and yes men; he was the one who encouraged the improvised immediacy of the record; he was the one who kept the band to a strict deadline of two weeks to record the entire thing.
‘In Utero’ is an album about chaos, about madness, about depression. It screams the unspeakable anger at the way the world is constantly dashing our hopes and dreams. It’s so unremittingly bleak that it should be unlistenable, but instead it infects the listener like a disease, plaguing the mind with its deviant thoughts long after the music has stopped playing.
Each successive track on ‘In Utero’ further twists the record away from the conventional shape that the listener expects it to eventually fall into. Opening track Serve the Servants might as well be saying “this song does not smell like teen spirit” with the lines “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old”. Heart-Shaped Box and All Apologies avoid mosh-inducing riffs for a spiralling descent into brooding introspection. Milk It meanders along with a ringing reverb washing over everything as Cobain mutters out a string of barely coherent lyrics that probably wouldn’t even make sense if you could make them all out.
The tone is never mere angst, but rather all-encompassing emotional turmoil. On Pennyroyal Tea you get the sense that Cobain is pushing his pain-ridden voice as far as it can go without ever breaking into a full on scream. He begs for relief but only ever delivers a blistering, visceral intensity.
The catchiest track is Rape Me. Its wry take on a radio-friendly melody seems to be challenging listeners to thoughtlessly sing along and bop their heads to a chorus of “Rape me, rape me my friend, rape me, rape me again”. The title alone of Radio Friendly Unit Shifter labours this same point. This is what an alternative album is supposed to sound like. It’s supposed to be a defiantly raised middle finger directed towards the people who tell you what music to like.
Thankfully Albini has returned to oversee the remastered re-release, and he does just enough to insure that ‘In Utero: 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition’ isn’t the kind of neutered, commercialised crap that Cobain was railing against. Albini’s new mixes of the original album – plus a whole host of unreleased demos and B-sides – pare things back even further, cleaning up the sound before painting it with a fresh gloss of grime. It is an artful reproduction of what music sounded like when it was still made in garages on cheap instruments, without the safety net of digital editing technology to clean everything up in post-production.
Maybe this is missing the point somewhat, but it still works. It’s a reminder that despite all of Nirvana imitators that came along, nobody has ever released an album quite like ‘In Utero’.
Did you enjoy this weeks edition of Golden Vault? Get involved, comment below and join us next week in the Golden Vault where we’ll be discussing ‘OK Computer’ by those sunshine boys known as Radiohead.