WPGM Commentary: Nirvana’s ‘In Utero’ And The Madness Of Life

September 14, 1993 was the day on which certain copies of In Utero (the album by Nirvana) were unleashed. It was also the day upon which I was born, having come out of utero. The album’s title term is a ‘Latin term literally meaning “in the womb“’ according to the Wikipedia page on the phrase.

Like the effect of some of the album’s imagery, I presume, on many average people should they be forced to listen to it, my birth was a painful phenomenon. It was stress-inducing as well as conveying distress.

On top of these things, my entrance, premature by several weeks, also shared with the song cycle, its defiance of expectations and norms, an important aspect of the album which is evident in the opening track’s crashing clash of notes after drummer Dave Grohl begins proceedings relatively quietly by ‘counting off’ for the band like a subtle doomsday clock.

However, there is more to note about the album than these things to which a single person can relate. Even though its appeal is by no means universal, the album is arguably still transcendent.

It manages to be celebrated years after Cobain’s death, despite having about it, an overall mood that is, for most of its running time, hardly celebratory, no matter how much joy one can squeeze out of the experience of listening to grunge. In Utero is essential listening, however uncomfortable its audience might become when confronted with it.

Although it leans towards disorder more than, say, “About A Girl” (an earlier Nirvana song from Bleach), the album is still clearly the work of conscientious, experienced professionals who often keep things sharp, relatively short and muscular despite the themes of frailty and the like.

Likewise, the strength of weakness and its effects can be overwhelming, and that is clear from this album. Taboo subjects like rape and abortion and equally unpleasant lyrics like “cut myself on angel hair and baby’s breath” and “throw down your umbilical noose” from “Heart Shaped Box” are on display. Such lyrics are like grotesques on a church exterior while a funeral marking the death of faith and joy takes place within it.

It would be inappropriate for such material to be set against a backdrop of shiny, commercial rock, nor would it be appropriate to marry the majority of In Utero’s instrumental material to songs of joy and bliss.

Like Cobain during part of the album’s second track, “Scentless Apprentice“, much of the overall effect of the album’s instrumentals and particular Albini’s production, screams “Get away!” However, the song “Dumb” is definitely positive, albeit seemingly a state of the sedative-induced sort and is basically mainstream in its content.

Despite the title of In Utero, and the bliss of songs like “Dumb”, the contents of the album had more to do with death than birth, though it spawned notable admirers and probably many copycat musicians.

Its opening lyric, “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old” is just one way that a sense of decay is invoked on the album, along with the reference to “divorce” later in the same song. The idea of defilement or impurity is present as distorted guitars bleed – like acidic, dirty waves – across the rhythm section.

There is the sense from the lyrics that something has already gone wrong, whether involving decay or not, in the subjects’ situations. Lyrics that are relevant to that idea include, “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black” and “I’m a liar and a thief”.

Additionally, there is an idea expressed in “All Apologies” that one cannot or should not be anything different from that for which we apologise (as shown in the opening phrases like, “What else should I be? All apologies”.

Overall the words create the feel of a person, and perhaps, by extension, the society of which he is part, reaching a nadir of some kind. However, artistically this is my no means poor-quality, despite its unpleasant nature which makes it terrible in the sense of evoking terror.

As the novelist Chinua Achebe wrote decades before Cobain’s birth, Things Fall Apart. One might not believe that we should think too deeply about what the lyrics mean, but these interpretations can be made and thematic connections can be drawn. That said, it could be argued that searching for profound meaning in a Cobain lyric sheet is like trying to find Jesus’ face in a bag of potatoes, or ultimate significance in life.

The music and lyrics of In Utero collectively reflect the anger and disenchantment felt by many – from existentialists to war veterans. It combines this with an experimental spirit and, more importantly, greatly skilled execution to create a great study of alienation and acceptance. It excels not necessarily in terms of technique but definitely in terms of sound and overall songwriting abilities, even though some of its experiments fail to take off successfully.

The confrontational nature of In Utero may not be a direct product of the climate in which its creators, from ‘Generation X’ came or were in while in the process of making the record, more than it reflected stylistic choices, internal thoughts inspired by things that resonated with the artists personally and the like.

Yet surely it reflects the madness of modern life unfolding around it and before it and possibly inside them. Only in the 1990s, or maybe later, could such music make such an impact commercially, touching the lives of so many.

Some elements – for example, feelings, ideas and songs – that are similar or integral to this album’s impact were perhaps conceived (in sin), possibly much earlier than the time in which In Utero was created.

However, this album gave those unborn, but still very much alive, things a platform for them in new ways, by giving them amplified prominence. This was done in a unique and powerful way. The album’s overall power transcends its ability to satisfy a sensation-and-distortion-hungry, low-fi-loving section of the grunge or alternative camp.

Purchase Nirvana’s In Utero album on iTunes here, and stream it on Spotify below.

Words by David J. Lownds

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