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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Remembering Nirvana’s Final Album ‘In Utero’

Cover art for "In Utero," Nirvana's third and final album. The album is being reissued to mark its 20th anniversary. (Nirvana)

Cover art for “In Utero,” Nirvana’s third and final album. The album is being reissued to mark its 20th anniversary. (Nirvana)

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s third and final record, “In Utero,” Here & Now speaks with pop culture critic Renee Graham, and Here & Now producer and director Alex Ashlock shares these thoughts:

I never bought all that “voice of a generation” stuff about Kurt Cobain. I was nearly 40 when he killed himself at the age of 27, so we weren’t even from the same generation. But the music he made with Nirvana spoke to me. It was often bitter and snarling but tender and melodic at the same time. He played a universal chord.

There was a feeling that the pain he was expressing, the anguish really, came from was a very real place. And that place was probably his dysfunctional family life, his parents acrimonious divorce, being shuttled from relative to relative in the gloomy northwest.

Kurt Cobain committed suicide at his home in Seattle in April 5, 1994. There were signs it was coming. There were drug overdoses. There was also a strange article I read in Spin Magazine, I think. The author riding around in a car with Cobain in some suburban neighborhood and just dropping him off to wander home or wherever he was going next in the pre-dawn darkness. I just never forgot that image. Here was one of the biggest rock stars in the world alone on the streets. He was lost.

On Here & Now we’re marking the 20th anniversary of the release of what turned out to be Nirvana’s final record, “In Utero.” The record came out in September 1993. It was the hugely anticipated follow up to “Nevermind” and its blockbuster hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Cobain thought “Nevermind” sounded too polished, so he and the band brought in Steve Albini in to produce “In Utero.” But Albini’s mixes of songs like “Heart Shaped Box” and “All Apologies” were too heavy for a record company that wanted another hit like “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” So another producer was recruited to buff them up. And those are the mixes that made the record that was released in 1993.

But now, thanks to a deluxe anniversary edition of “In Utero,” we can finally hear those original mixes. The anniversary edition of “In Utero” also includes a Nirvana concert recorded in 1993 in Seattle. It’s a reminder of how powerful the band could be on stage, but it’s also a reminder of what we’ve lost.

I saved a bunch of articles from newspapers and magazines after Kurt Cobain killed himself and put them in a notebook. There’s also my ticket stub from the only Nirvana show I got to see. I was looking through that notebook this morning and just felt sad.

Alex Ashlock's Nirvana ticket stub is pictured on a magazine page featuring Kurt Cobain. (Here & Now)

Alex Ashlock’s Nirvana ticket stub is pictured on a magazine page featuring Kurt Cobain. (Here & Now)

Guest

  • Renee Graham, pop culture critic for Here & Now. She tweets @reneeygraham.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT")

HOBSON: Kurt Cobain and Nirvana exploded onto the music scene with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in 1991. The song was on the band's second album, "Nevermind," and it was a blockbuster commercial success, unlike Nirvana's final album, "In Utero."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SERVE THE SERVANTS")

KURT COBAIN: (Singing) Teenage angst has paid off well. Now I'm bored and old. Self-appointed judges judge more than they have soul.

HOBSON: This is "Serve the Servants," which came out 20 years ago, less than a year before the band's lead singer, Kurt Cobain, committed suicide. There is a new box set out today to mark the 20th anniversary of "In Utero," and HERE AND NOW pop culture critic Renee Graham joins us to talk about it. Renee, welcome.

RENEE GRAHAM, BYLINE: Hi, Jeremy.

HOBSON: So I know you're a big Nirvana fan, but explain the significance of this new rerelease of this album.

GRAHAM: Well, the remarkable thing about "In Utero" is this was the follow-up album to "Nevermind," which was Nirvana's breakthrough. A lot of people didn't think this album was ever going to happen because the band became so big they really fractured afterwards. Exacerbating the problem as well was Cobain was really deep into his heroin addiction at that time. And it just seemed like the band was so overwhelmed and there was so many problems that this third album might never come out.

HOBSON: And Cobain and other members of Nirvana thought that "Nevermind" was too polished. They wanted a rougher sound for the next album, maybe even a sound that alienated people that loved "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Did they get what they wanted?

GRAHAM: Well, that was a big piece of this. You know, they felt that "Nevermind" became too poppy, that it wasn't the sound they want. They wanted a much harder, much more aggressive sound. So out went producer Butch Vig, and in came Steve Albini, who produced the Pixies and PJ Harvey and Helmet. And, you know, he was the producer they wanted because he was known for having this big, aggressive, brutal sound. And that's what they wanted. And I think in some ways, they really want to separate out their fans from the real fans, the people who were just following a trend.

HOBSON: But what's a good example of that aggressive sound that they got?

GRAHAM: There's a song called "Milk It." And I think you - the minute you hear it, you know, it's nothing - it's unlike anything else on "Nevermind," and it gives you an idea of what they want to do with this album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MILK IT")

COBAIN: (Singing) Doll steak, test meat.

HOBSON: Now, Renee, there are some original mixes for "In Utero" that were not released before but are part of this new box set.

GRAHAM: Well, that was the tricky thing. They hired Steve Albini to be the producer for "In Utero." And then when the album was finished, the label, Geffen, decided you know what? There's nothing really commercially viable here. So they brought in Scott Litt, who had worked a lot with R.E.M., to kind of smooth out the edges on a couple of songs they thought they could release as singles. And those two songs were "All Apologies" and "Heart-Shaped Box."

HOBSON: Two of the relatively well-known songs on that album.

GRAHAM: Yes. I mean, these were the two singles - these were the songs that people really gravitated to, initially. There's not a great deal of difference between the Albini mixes and the Litt mix. But what you do hear in the Albini mix is this huge tsunami of sound that almost completely drowns out Cobain's vocals on the chorus of "All Apologies." But I don't think it's that different, and it's really good to finally hear these songs the way that the band always want them to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL APOLOGIES")

COBAIN: (Singing) In the sun, in the sun, I feel as one. In the sun, in the sun, married, married, married, buried. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

HOBSON: There are a lot of unreleased songs on here. What's one that really knocked you out?

GRAHAM: What's got a lot of attention has been the song called "Forgotten Tune," and it's really just an instrumental. It kind of sounds like early '90s Metallica without all the bombast. You know, there's not a lot there. It's certainly not as interesting as the song "You Know You're Right," which came out on a box set just 10 - less than 10 years ago.

So I think that - you know, a lot of people are talking about that, but I think what's going to stand out for this will be those Albini - the original mixes of the Steve Albini songs, but also "Marigold," which is a solo demo by Dave Grohl, now known for Foo Fighters, who then was the drummer of Nirvana. And you didn't really hear him sing that much in solo. So it's really extraordinary to hear him doing this song, and that's from 1990.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARIGOLD")

DAVE GROHL: (Singing) He's there in case I wandered off. He's scared 'cause I warned. He's scared in case I want it all. He's scared...

HOBSON: Some of the latest from Nirvana's new box set of "In Utero." And you're listening to HERE AND NOW.

And another song that you mentioned that I think a lot of people will remember is "Heart-Shaped Box." The new box set includes a live concert that was recorded in Seattle in 1993. Let's listen to a little bit of "Heart-Shaped Box."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART-SHAPED BOX")

COBAIN: (Singing) She eyes me like a Pisces when I am weak. I've been locked inside your heart-shaped box for weeks. I've been drawn into your magnet tar pit trap. I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black. Hey. Wait. I got a new complaint, forever in debt to your priceless advice.

HOBSON: Did you ever get to see Nirvana live?

GRAHAM: I blew it. I had a chance to see them and then didn't go, thinking, oh, I'll go see them later. And, of course, there was no later, because Kurt Cobain killed himself about six to seven months after "In Utero" was released. So, no, never had that opportunity.

But when you hear them live, even on record, you get this sort of raw, seductive power of what they can do. And what's great about them live is there's no record executives telling them, no, that's too harsh and, no, you can't do that. So the songs really expanded and really broadened in a way that they really couldn't do on record. And they do the thing that great bands do when they perform live - you get it all. And that was what's really, you know, important when they have these box set release is to get that so people remember just how good this band really was.

HOBSON: Would you prefer to listen to something that was recorded live versus something that was recorded in a studio?

GRAHAM: Sometimes. Yeah. I think in this case, definitely, because even though I like the studio versions, when you hear them live, the songs are longer, they're ragged. Kurt Cobain, who loved wordplay, he's always sort of changing lyrics and sort of twisting words and bending them to invert their meanings. And he did a lot of that when they performed live.

You have a line like the end of "All Apologies," which is, on the record, all in all is all we are, but when he sings it live, he sings, all alone is all we are, which really changes the meaning of that song, which also became kind of an elegy for him after he died. So, yeah, I think the live stuff really, really, you know, makes this box set worth it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL APOLOGIES")

COBAIN: (Singing) All in all is all we are. All in all is all we are. All alone is all we are. All alone is all we are.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

HOBSON: Well, Renee, what song should we go out on?

GRAHAM: Let's go out on "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter," which is one of those songs that really had the Albini touch on it. It's loud. It's aggressive. It's got great lyrics. It's got all that wonderful wordplay that Kurt Cobain was so good with. And I think it's just a perfect example of what he could do and what we lost.

HOBSON: Renee Graham is HERE AND NOW's pop culture critic. Renee, thanks as always.

GRAHAM: Thanks, Jeremy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RADIO FRIENDLY UNIT SHIFTER")

HOBSON: And, Robin, as I look through the glass as we're hearing all this Nirvana music, I can see a big smile on the face of our producer Alex Ashlock, who's a huge Nirvana fan. You can read his thoughts on what the band meant to him at hereandnow.org.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

And many of you have already sent your all-time favorite songs. Bridget Trinkaus(ph) said "Heart-Shaped Box;" Kirk Shirpley(ph), "Negative Creep;" Tim Broussard(ph), Lisa Broderick Cohen(ph) and every high school reunion of a certain era voted for "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Send us yours: facebook.com/hereandnowradio.

HOBSON: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RADIO FRIENDLY UNIT SHIFTER")

COBAIN: (Singing) Starve without your skeleton key. Love you for what I am not. I did not want what I have got. Blanket acne with cigarette burns. Speak at once while taking turns. What is wrong with me? What is wrong with me? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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  • Ian-from-Portland

    It’s probably too late to end up on the show (plus I don’t use twitter),
    But my favorite two Nirvana songs are Francis Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle and Oh, The Guilt. Francis Farmer because it melodically grinds you into the ground before pulling you up to tell you why it’s doing it. Oh, The Guilt for being Nirvanas penultimate thrash track.

  • julie

    I was at the “Live and Loud” show Dec. 13, 1993 on pier 43 in Seattle, included in the anniversary edition of In Utero.

    I had been to a few of their local shows prior, but this show seemed unusual in its spectacle. It was being filmed for MTV, so the space was huge, the lights were purply bright and I recall big fans blowing the band’s hair around, rock star-like. The band sounded phenomenal, but at the same time, in typical fashion, also seemed hell bent to destroy everything on stage, including multiple winged mannequins. I remember thinking that it felt like we were all teetering on chaos, kind of like Nirvana was giving MTV way more than they bargained for. Kurt pulled a ton of people up from the audience at the end and the show finished with a perfectly anarchic Seattle feeling.

    They seemed on top of the world. Hard to believe so much would change in just a few short months.

    • Alex Ashlock, Here and Now

      The show I saw was in November of ’93 at American University in DC. Kurt kept throwing his guitar at the disco ball hanging over the stage. It was wild.

  • RAOUL

    This is a great album, I mean dude, “Noise” – no wonder Kurt overdosed. I only wish Mr. Cobain could have lived to make a Christmas album.

  • Alex Ashlock, Here and Now

    Thanks for writing folks. These guys made quite a dent in the emotions of a lot of us. My favorite song by Nirvana is “All Apologies.”

  • Titus Sardonicus

    Nevermind may have been the important album, but in my mind, In Utero was the far better record.

  • Chris Topher

    Renee – excellent job! heard this live yesterday and was impressed how accurate and complete your report was.

  • Alex Ashlock, Here and Now

    It’s interesting how this record still resonates. I have to agree with poster Titus that Nevermind may be more important but In Utero is the better record. It has my 2 favorite Nirvana songs, All Apologies and Heart-Shaped Box. I think the latter song remains Nirvana’s, really Kurt’s ultimate statement.

  • fun bobby

    funny one would lament the polish of their later work when Bleach is available

    • Alex Ashlock, Here and Now

      Good point. Bleach is oft overlooked.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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