News Column

Herald & Review, Decatur, Ill., Tim Cain column

September 20, 2013


Sept. 20--This month marks the 20th anniversary of the release of one of the most obnoxious No. 1 albums in history.

An album that's also, as it happens, one of my favorites.

Nirvana's "In Utero" was released in Sept. 1993. The band's previous album, "Nevermind," had topped the charts and its style and acceptance changed how music was heard, viewed and consumed immediately after its release.

They were, for a brief time, the hottest thing in music.

And they seemed to be doing things quietly, until Newsweek magazine ran a story in late summer 1993 that echoed an earlier Chicago Tribune story -- the band's label wasn't happy with the recording, and wanted things reworked. The band's response was generally reported to be a spirited "Hell no." Album producer Steve Albini -- who previously had said he consider the band to be "R.E.M. with a fuzzbox," which is pretty funny, whether he intended it to be or not -- predicted the album would never be released as he recorded it.

This was the exact point at which my little inner artist guardian snapped to attention to start wailing woe about the big bad record company. Had I been writing a blog at the time, a week's worth of entries wouldn't have contained my fury.

How dare this record company -- which had no idea what it possessed when it first signed Nirvana to begin with -- try to determine what was and was not "art." That was the artists' job. The record company had to distribute it. They had no business assigning anything close to a do-over.

The band acquiesced on a couple of songs, including the lead single, "Heart-Shaped Box." They toned it down. "Heart-Shaped Box" was viewed by the band as a "gateway" to the album, although (honestly) had I heard it before buying the album, the song might have scared me away.

But it would have taken from me a breathtaking experience. My tastes in what I truly love artistically rarely meshes with what's hugely popular. So, for example, when I adored Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and it was selling millions and millions of copies, I wonder if my tastes had changed.

My first spins of "In Utero" came with the knowledge that the band had bent some to record company wishes to make the album more "commercial." And even at that, I thought, "If the label thinks this is commercial, what the heck did Nirvana submit to begin with?"

I was additionally confounded by my age. This was really the first time I was intensely interested in music not specifically aimed at me, or at an older demographic. As I listened, I was also grappling with whether I had any right to form an opinion about something created by people more than a decade younger than me. (That sort of thing seemed very important to me at the time.) Was it fair to form an opinion of praise or criticism when there was every possibility I had no idea what Nirvana was attempting to say?

Given a fresh listen, "In Utero" sure doesn't sound like the kind of thing Newsweek magazine would spend a lot of time discussing now, even if the magazine still existed. The guitars are messy, feeding back and apparently in a race to reach notes before the singer does. There's more feedback in "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" alone than the amount that Jimi Hendrix put on all the studio recordings released in his lifetime.

Cobain sings like his guitar sounds, and even if you know what he's singing, you aren't sure you've got it exactly right. Cobain reportedly recorded all the vocal tracks in six hours. If that's true, it's another indication of the depth and breadth of his talent.

The drums are huge, not in the clean, antiseptic 1980s way, but in a way where you can picture a real human sweating as he worked to keep up and stay ahead of the noise his bandmates were making. Just like the way Dave Grohl looked when he played. The best songs are practically a musical conversation between Cobain and Grohl. One of the things that struck me and continues to be a factor is how the drums are really a lead instrument.

A few weeks after the release of "In Utero," MTV ran one of its greatest "Unplugged" shows, featuring a trio of songs from the new album. (The CD release of the show didn't happen until November 1994. Cobain committed suicide in April 1994.) It's quite easy to hear where the unplugged ideas fit, especially on "Pennyroyal Tea," one of the most revelatory performances from the "Unplugged" set.

"In Utero" wound up at No. 2 on my year-end list for 1993. Clearly, my concerns about enjoying and encouraging art not directly targeted at me were allayed. My analysis was:

"There are points where it's easy to see what might have made record company types reluctant to release this. And there are points during which you can understand why this hadn't sold 9 trillion copies, the way NEVERMIND did. And then there are points where it burrows into your skull and refuses to let go. I like all its points, though I'm probably the kind of guy Kurt Cobain would look at and hate for liking his music."

So maybe I didn't get over it.|(217) 421-6908


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