Wednesday, August 9, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1039: Nirvana

After being inexplicably in the doldrums, I got to work this morning and started to feel energized and positive. I can’t credit this next album though. It is energized enough, but not exactly positive.

Disc 1039 is…In Utero
Artist: Nirvana

Year of Release: 1993

What’s up with the Cover? Ever wonder about the inner workings of the angels? Ever wish you hadn’t asked? This picture provides at least one piece of wisdom though – which is why you should never have a drinking competition with an angel: they have a hollow leg.

How I Came To Know It: My old roommate Greg introduced me to Nirvana. This was just me years later, finally admitting he had done me a good turn, even if I didn’t appreciate it at the time.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Nirvana albums. Of the four, I put “In Utero” in at number two, just behind “Nevermind” (reviewed way back at Disc 191).

Ratings: 4 stars

Oh, Nirvana, sometimes I wish I could just give all of you a great big hug, but maybe that would have just spoiled all the amazing music you made. “In Utero” is another example of exactly that. Building on the success of the classic “Nevermind,” “In Utero” showed that despite a career cut short by Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Nirvana’s brilliance was no fluke.

Once again, Nirvana manages to seamlessly blend punk, metal and classic rock sensibilities that at the time we all liked to call “grunge.” Actually, that’s what it’s called; just because the movement eschewed having commercial labels applied to it, doesn’t mean they weren’t there. It’s called grunge.

You don’t find a band that is more loaded with self-loathing, sadness and futile rage than Nirvana, and “In Utero” just adds to that canon of despair. Advancing through the album you’ll hear the band invite themselves to be raped (“Rape Me”), invoke the long-dead ghosts of mentally ill film stars (“Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle”) and express confusion over whether they are dumb, happy or just some kind of confused fraud pretending to understand the difference (“Dumb”).

“In Utero” is even crunchier than “Nevermind” and while it doesn’t have the primal fury of their earliest release - 1989’s “Bleach” - it more than makes up for that with more thoughtful song structures and range. The album is equally at home with crunch-riddled songs like “Scentless Apprentice” and “Frances Farmer…” and soft almost acoustic numbers like “All Apologies.” On masterpieces like “Rape Me” they combine both elements; alternating hard and soft as they deftly show internal turmoil, quietly bubbling away until it bursts in an explosion of musical fury.  

This is music for the disaffected, disenfranchised youth of the early nineties (Full disclosure: I was both, but chose folk music as my emotional outlet in the day). For those who chose grunge, it was easy to latch onto Nirvana. Kurt Cobain’s lyrics speak out against the mouth-breathers of the world, best expressed on “All Apologies” as:

“I wish I was like you
Easily amused.”

His vocal style is the perfect match to this disconnected experience: half growl, half strangled cry, and yet strangely gifted at carrying the tune. And that is Nirvana’s secret: underneath all the growl and guitar feedback, the bones of these songs are beautiful melodically. They crunch along with a punk edge, but they also have a mournful lilt to them that draws you in by both the guts and the heart.

I don’t put this album on that often, but listening to it for the last couple of days I can’t think of a good reason why not. It is chock-full of fast-paced, brilliantly constructed rock and roll, with a liberal dose of teeth-gritted frustration. Maybe it is the latter that put me off – sometimes you just don’t want to feel bad. But listening to it this time, “In Utero” didn’t make me feel bad at all, it just give me an outlet to shake all that negative energy out of me.

It is sad that while Cobain gave this emotional outlet to so many people, he could never shout out his own demons, leaving us too soon, with all his future masterpieces unwritten. Luckily, before that happened he gave us one last moment of brilliance with “In Utero.”

Best tracks: Scentless Apprentice, Heart-Shaped Box, Rape Me, Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle, Dumb, All Apologies

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