This is the way Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain spells success: s-u-c-k-s-e-g-g-s. Never in the history of rock & roll overnight sensations has an artist, with the possible exception of John Lennon, been so emotionally overwhelmed by his sudden good fortune, despised it with such devilish vigor and exorcised his discontent on record with such bristling, bull’s-eye candor. In Utero is rife with gibes — some hilariously droll, others viciously direct — at life in the post-Nevermind fast lane, at the moneychangers who milked the grunge tit dry in record time and at the bandwagon sheep in the mosh pit who never caught on to the desperate irony of “Here we are now, entertain us.” The very first words out of Cobain’s mouth in “Serve the Servants,” In Utero‘s petulant, bludgeoning opener, are “Teenage angst has served me well/Now I’m bored and old,” sung in an irritated, marble-mouthed snarl that immediately derails any lingering expectations for a son of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
It gets better. In “Very Ape,” a two-minute corker cut from the same atomic-fuzz cloth as the band’s 1989 debut album, Bleach, Cobain gets right down to brass tacks, against a burning-rubber lead guitar squeal and the mantric rumble of bassist Chris Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl: “I am buried up to my neck in/Contradictionary lies.” (Nice pun, that.) The kiss-off quickly follows: “If you ever need anything, don’t hesitate/To ask someone else first.” Cobain slightly overplays his hand with the title of “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter.” Nirvana have been called many things over the past two years; that, as far as I can tell, is not one of them. But Cobain cuts right to the heart of the mire with a torrent of death-throe guitar feedback and a brilliant metaphor for the head-turning speed with which one man can suddenly sire a nation: “This had nothing to do with what you think/If you ever think at all…. All of a sudden my water broke.”
Frankly, Nirvana as a band and Cobain as the point man have earned the right to spit in fortune’s eye. Generation X is really a generation hexed, caught in a spin cycle of updated 70s punk and heavy-metal aesthetics and cursed by the velocity with which even the most abrasive pop under-culture can be co-opted and compromised. One minute, Nevermind is jackbooting Michael Jackson out of the No. 1 slot; the next, grunge jock Dan Cortese is screaming, “I love this place!” on behalf of Burger King. Even the hippies got a summer or two to themselves in the mid-’60s before the dough-re-mi boys horned in. So it’s hardly a stretch to suggest that in “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” (a slash-and-burner named after the locally born actress, whose rebellious streak brought her to the brink of insanity), it is really Cobain who wants to torch the town and send the A&R hounds packing.
None of this unrepentantly self-obsessed rant & roll would be half as compelling or convincing if Nirvana weren’t such master blasters — Novoselic and Grohl deserve a few extra bows here — and Cobain wasn’t a songwriter of such ferocious honesty and focused musical smarts. Cobain essentially works according to one playbook, but it’s a winner no matter how he runs it. His songs invariably open with a slow-boil verse, usually sung in a plaintive groan over muted strumming and a tempered backbeat. Then Cobain vaporizes you with a chorus of immense power-chord static and primal howling. That, in a nutshell, is “Teen Spirit” and “Come As You Are.” It also covers, to varying degrees, “Rape Me,” “Penny Royal Tea” and “Milk It” on In Utero.
But the devilry is in the details. “Rape Me” opens as a disquieting whisper, Cobain intoning the title verse in a battered croon, which sets you up beautifully to get blind-sided by the explosive hook line. In the sepulchral folk intro of “Penny Royal Tea,” Cobain almost sounds like Michael Stipe at the beginning of R.E.M.’s “Drive” — before the heaving, fuzz-burnt chorus comes lashing down with a vengeance.
Steve Albini’s production, an au naturel power-trio snort that is almost monophonic in its compressed intensity, is particularly effective during those dramatic cave-ins. The word grunge, of course, doesn’t do this kind of ravishing clatter justice. But Nirvana never bought into the simple Black Flag-cum-Sabbath hoodlum shtick anyway. From Bleach on, they have specialized in a kind of luminous roar and scarred beauty that has more to do with Patti Smith, the Buzzcocks and Plastic Ono-era John Lennon.
Actually, the icy tension of the part ballad, part punk-rock blues “Heart-Shaped Box” and the amorous chamber-punk urgency of “Dumb” (“My heart is broke/But I have some glue/Help me inhale/And mend it with you”) confirm that if Generation Hex is ever going to have its own Lennon — someone who genuinely believes in rock & roll salvation but doesn’t confuse mere catharsis with true deliverance — Cobain is damn near it. In “Heart-Shaped Box,” the kind of song Stone Temple Pilots couldn’t write even with detailed instructions, Cobain sets up a hypnotic coiled-spring tension between the frayed elegance of the verse melody and the strong Oedipal undertow of his obsession (“Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back”). The last track, “All Apologies,” is another stunning trump card, the fluid twining of cello and guitar hinting at a little fireside R.E.M. while the full-blaze pop glow of the chorus shows the debt of inspiration Cobain has always owed to Paul Westerberg and the vintage Replacements.
It’s the last thing most people would expect from Angst Central, and it’s an inspired sign-off that shows how Nirvana have been reborn in the face of suck-cess. In Utero is a lot of things — brilliant, corrosive, enraged and thoughtful, most of them all at once. But more than anything, it’s a triumph of the will.