in utero

Part 43 of a series that will run throughout 2013 as I discuss records that have affected me throughout the years – Flashback Fridays

It is exactly 2,823 miles from Hatboro, PA to the Lake Washington section of Seattle, WA. I grew up in the former, and Kurt Cobain of Nirvana resided in the latter (post fame). There is a part of me that wishes I could tell you that I discovered Nirvana in the late 80’s and was one of the few who had a copy of their debut, Bleach, years before they hit it big with their 2nd record, Nevermind. Unfortunately, that would be a lie. I was a slightly awkward kid in 9th grade that had come across a video on MTV’s buzz bin that sounded like nothing else I’d ever heard. Of course that song was “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and would propel Nirvana towards becoming one of the most famous bands in the history of modern music. The full length record was released on September 24, 1991 and I believe it put into motion the chain of events that would lead me to move to Seattle just 11 years later in early 2002. A poet and visionary from Washington State had heavily influenced a geeky 14-year-old from Pennsylvania.

What is a band supposed to do for a follow-up? Nevermind changed the music industry and the way that scruffy guitar bands were viewed (at least for a little while). The stop-gap collection of rarities, Incesticide, was released late in 1992 to hold over fans anxious for a follow-up. Rumors ran rampant of recording sessions with Steve Albini producing noisy, raw, and perhaps even unlistenable tracks. On September 13, 1993 the wait was over – Nirvana’s third record, In Utero was released for public consumption. I remember on 1st listen the record seemed to inhabit an uncomfortable space that I hadn’t yet experienced with an album. On the 1st record they had been noisy with a few pop influenced songs. The 2nd had noise but radio friendly hooks on almost every track. This album…this was different. The vocals seemed to come from Arthur Janov inspired primal scream sessions. The music was raw and disjointed – yet somehow some of the tracks retained some (not all) of the pop leanings of previous records. The lyrics were at times personal, nonsensical, and contradictory – but above all they exposed Cobain as a poet influenced by The Beat Generation. I am an unabashed Nirvana fan and In Utero is my favorite album by them.

Find, find your place – speak, speak the truth

Serve the Servant – the album opens up with a controlled blast of guitar noise, Cobain’s vocals seem to be mocking the persona of “Kurt Cobain the Rock Star” that was in the press at the time. The drums explode out of the speakers and yes that’s Dave Grohl on drums, now almost more famous for the Foo Fighters. The chorus is ridiculously strong, a hushed vocal performance to counter the screams of the verses. Key lyrics:

As my bones grew they did hurt
They hurt really bad
I tried hard to have a father
But instead I had a dad

I just want you to know that I
Don’t hate you anymore
There is nothing I could say
That I haven’t thought before

Scentless Apprentice – this is the first sign that this is nothing like the other Nirvana records. Drums again exploding, Krist Novoselic’s bass giving the song an almost post-punk feel. Kurt’s vocals? Deranged, unhinged, angry. In other words, simply perfection. There is a thrash element to the music as Kurt screams “Go Away!!” over and over. I used to blast this in my car and scream along at the top of my lungs. Still do, actually. Can I redact that? Key lyrics:

Every wet nurse refused to feed him
Electrolytes smell like semen
I promise not to sell your perfumed secrets
There are countless formulas for pressing flowers

Go away – get away, get a-way

Heart-Shaped Box – Let’s follow-up one of the more aggressive songs on the record with the radio single, shall we? The song harkens back to the earlier radio hits with a verse-chorus-verse structure that Cobain had begun to resent. It is an effective song that featured an unsettling video. This was one of the songs on the record that was produced by Steve Albini than reworked by famed R.E.M. producer, Scott Litt. Amazing that these lyrics were on every radio station back in ’93 and ’94:

Meat-eating orchids forgive no one just yet
Cut myself on angel’s hair and baby’s breath
Broken hymen of your highness I’m left back
Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back

Hey! Wait!
I’ve got a new complaint
Forever in debt to your priceless advice

Rape Me – the track begins with an inverted version of the introduction to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” before Kurt’s voice comes in imploring the listener to “Rape me…”. Unsettling. Uncomfortable. Brilliant. The band kicks in and Kurt sings like a man possessed. The musicianship on this track is incredible. Everything slows down for Kurt to soulfully croon the title before the music kicks it up a notch. I’ve played this song thousands of times and it never gets old. Another man’s demons can be a listener’s delight. Key lyrics:

Hate me
Do it and do it again
Waste me
Rape me my friend

I’m not the only one

Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle – the famed actress who fell into alleged mental health / drinking issues and spent time in a Washington State mental facility is the subject of this song. Geek fact – she had also been married to Leif Erickson, who was the subject of a song by Interpol on their debut album. Her treatment in the hospital has been up for debate for over 50 years now and Cobain’s lyrics eloquently address his thoughts. Vocals are nuanced, holding back when necessary so that the screams are more effective. Drums high in the mix, heavy bass. Key lyrics:

In her false witness, we hope you’re still with us,
To see if they float or drown
Our favorite patient, a display of patience,
Disease-covered Puget Sound
She’ll come back as fire, to burn all the liars,
And leave a blanket of ash on the ground

I miss the comfort in being sad

Dumb – Much like Ian Curtis of Joy Division, Kurt Cobain was providing lyrical clues as to his eventual suicide. It is hard to listen to this song knowing what would come after. Emotional vocals, epic strings, and self loathing lyrics. Clarity amongst the confusion. As a ballad it is beautiful, the lyrical content is uncomfortable to listen to. Art should make people uncomfortable (I saw that on Facebook a while back and stole it). Key lyrics:

I’m not like them
But I can pretend
The sun is gone
But I have a light
The day is done
But I’m having fun
I think I’m dumb

Very Ape – the band locks into a groove immediately and never lets up for the duration of the song. Cobain’s lyrics are funny and unsettling. The song title is used during the verses and not during the chorus which is a nice trick. A deeper album cut, but an effective one. Key lyrics:

I am buried up to my neck in
Contradictionary flies
I take pride as the king of illiterature
I’m very ape and very nice

Milk It – Moody atmosphere to start, meandering guitar and drums very high in the mix. Metal shredding type guitar enters the mix and just as suddenly leaves. Cobain mumbles like an apparition who wandered into a recording studio before it explodes in an orgasm of white noise. Kurt screams like a man possessed…and the band repeats the trick a few times for the duration of the 4 minute song. Key lyrics:

Look on the bright side is suicide
Lost eyesight I’m on your side
Angel left wing, right wing, broken wing
Lack of iron and/or sleeping

Pennyroyal Tea – I don’t believe this is a double entendre relating to Nirvana’s pay structure as was assumed by some publications at the time (penny royalty). Maybe I’m wrong though. Either way, this is a “by the numbers” Nirvana track that builds from an acoustic type introduction to a full-out assault…and back again. The guitar solo sets it apart though – this track would only have fit on THIS album. Features my favorite Cobain lyric, and why not? Leonard Cohen is every man and woman’s dream. Key lyrics:

Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld
So I can sigh eternally

I’m so tired I can’t sleep
I’m a liar and a thief
Sit and drink Pennyroyal Tea
I’m anemic royalty

Radio Friendly Unit Shifter  – a post punk squall of white noise guitar before the band enters the aural assault. Kurt’s vocals are chanted as the sounds envelope his voice. There is almost no chorus other than Kurt shouting “What is wrong with me” a few times. This one features a drum solo. A band willfully trying to alienate its fans? I love it. Key lyrics:

What is wrong with me
What do I think of me ?

Hate, hate your enemies
Save, save your friends
Find, find your place
Speak, speak the truth

tourette’s  – the noisiest 1:35 jam I’ve ever heard, demented vocals and amazing drumming. They manage to pack some guitar lines full of melody into the mix. Another one of those tracks that you can play in the car to get pumped up for a coffee meeting at Starbucks. Go ahead and scream along with Kurt:

Out of town, out of sight, is my heart.
Queen of lies, everyday, in my heart.
My heart, one more on the phone, my heart.
One more at the phone, at my heart
Hey!

All Apologies – A fitting conclusion to the album lyrically wise. This is the other song that was reworked by Scott Litt to give it a more radio friendly vibe. It again follows a very aggressive song on the album. The MTV unplugged version released after Cobain’s death got more airplay (if I remember correctly). That version is great, but doesn’t feature the jam worthy instrumentation throughout the song. Sinead O’Connor covered this song just a year later on her Universal Mother album. Key lyrics:

I wish I was like you
Easily amused
Find my nest of salt
Everything is my fault
I’ll take all the blame
Aqua seafoam shame
Sunburn with freezer burn
Choking on the ashes of her enemy

On a summer’s day in 2007 a few friends and I decided to visit some of the deceased legends of the Seattle area . Our first stop was the Jimi Hendrix memorial which was a fitting tribute to one of the greatest guitarists of all time. Our next stop was to see the headstones of Bruce & Brandon Lee at Lakeview Cemetery. At each of these there was a sense of greatness lost much too soon. An electricity in the air perhaps. After a pit stop at a 7-11 converted into a Kwiki Mart we trekked on towards our final sight of the day. The house Kurt lived in by the shores of Lake Washington was a study in contradictions – an expensive house that was home to a thrifty rock star. In contrast to the earlier pit stops, we could only see bits and pieces of the house (similar to what was on the news after Kurt’s suicide). Fitting, I thought to myself. Can we ever know what made Kurt Cobain tick? In Utero can help us understand just a bit, the screams of an eternal 27-year-old struggling to make sense of it all. Join me the 1st week of May as I discuss John Lydon’s Psycho’s Path.

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