Picks and Pans Review: In Utero
The surprise success of Nirvana's 1991 major-label debut, Nevermind, left the trio in a quandary: Is your music any less "alternative" when the sale of 4 million albums makes you part of the mainstream? In interviews, the Seattle-based band members have expressed great reluctance to play the role of pop hero, to be the voice of a generation or to speak for anyone other than themselves. They will be stuck with the job of heroic spokesband, however, as long as they keep transforming their frustration into noise as glorious, ragged and resonant as In Utero, which roars to the front ranks of this year's releases.
Singer Kurt Cobain's lyrics drip with irony as he rips into the band's critics ("Rape Me"), music-business lawyers ("Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle"), their marketers ("Radio Friendly Unit Shifter") and himself (all the songs). His angry, resigned refrains ("I miss the comfort of being sad," "I think I'm dumb/ Or maybe just happy") may look awkward on the page, but rendered in his muttering-to-waiting delivery, they ring out with disillusionment and disappointment that will strike a chord among a great multitude of his listeners.
There were well-publicized rumors that the record label had scrapped producer Steve Albini's abrasive mix for a more commercial (read wimpier) sound. But even the most cursory listen will tell you that these rumors were unfounded (though the two most radio-friendly tracks were remixed by R.K.M producer Scott Litt). The dramatic hallmarks of Nevermind remain intact here: the sudden dynamic shifts, Cobain's unerring sense of songcraft and his inventive hursts of guitar fire, and bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl's heart-stopping rhythms. By the final track, the lovely plea "All Apologies," when Nirvana asks, "What else should I be?" the response is obvious: These musicians are doing just fine being their own ambivalent, articulate selves. (DGC)