In Utero: A Womb With a View

Godzilla meets Mothra in the new Musician, which has an excerpt from Michael Azerrad’s Come as You Are, a Nirvana bio. “I don’t feel like embarrassing Kurt by talking about what a psycho hose-beast his wife is, especially because he knows it already,” remarks In Utero producer Steve Albini. Respondeth Courtney Love: “The only way Steve Albini would think I was the perfect girlfriend would be if I was from the East Coast, played the cello, had big tits and small hoop earrings, wore black turtlenecks, had all matching luggage and never said a word.” Against a backdrop of such wife-producer bonhomie–and on top of his own heroin addiction, his bandmates’ corresponding disgust, and having his child temporarily removed by the authorities–did Kurt Cobain craft his follow-up to Nevermind.

Two utterly conflicting desires seem to frame the album. First, there are the band’s–Cobain’s, really–almost painful attempts to maintain its alternative credibility in the wake of its unforeseen celebrity; Albini was brought on as producer specifically to prop up the band’s underground bona fides. Such concerns aren’t new–the Stones debated the authenticity of their blues–but the line drawing and mau-mauing of the postpunk 80s remain particularly toxic, and haunt its veterans still. Cobain’s an enthusiastic participant (dissing the somewhat silly but hardly dangerous Pearl Jam as “careerists”) so he deserves whatever pain such an atmosphere causes him. Still, it’s a bit pathetic to see the leader of the most successful uncompromised band in the history of rock music jumping through hoops to please a marginal minority. The result is that a good chunk of In Utero is devoted to ungodly noise: the clanking, screechy “Scentless Apprentice,” the tuneless “Very Ape,” the ugly “Milk It,” the pointless “Tourette’s.” There’s nothing wrong with tuneless, noisy music. But Cobain’s using these songs to take a position in a political battle that most of us have no stake in.

Junky unsongs like these run counter to the album’s second purpose. Cobain has something to say that he wants us to understand and heed. Disease (“I am my own parasite,” “I wish I could eat your cancer,” “I’ll kiss your open sores”) is In Utero’s thematic center, and its warm and fuzzy habitat is the scene, from the winged female anatomy on the cover and the pile of intestines, wombs, and fetuses that adorn the back to the organs that litter the lyrics of many songs. This imagery functions in two central metaphors of his life over the past few years: stardom and its accoutrements are a sickness (“I’m anemic royalty”) whose symptoms revolt him. That fuels the second, chancier metaphor, wrenchingly captured in the astonishing “Rape Me,” which encompasses the horror of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Nirvana fans who allegedly raped a woman to the tune of Cobain’s “Polly,” and the singer’s own bouts with fame. That last, of course, is a bit of a reach, but the defiant lyrics, the nuanced vocals, and Cobain’s evident pain save him and the song.

On “Rape Me” and the rest of the non-noisy half of the album (“Serve the Servants,” “Heart-Shaped Box,” “Dumb,” “Pennyroyal Tea,” and “All Apologies”), the lyrical savagery and the surprising sonic sympathy crafted by Albini can make you shudder; such emotion maintains Cobain’s outsider ethos far more effectively than noise. And yet Cobain takes it even farther, finding respite with his wife and baby girl, who spent at least some of her early life as a parasite in a host body that shot heroin. (Vanity Fair quoted Love saying she’d continued using the drug “a few months” after learning she was pregnant. Love says she was misquoted. Azerrad’s book goes out of its way to make the point that doctors say first-trimester heroin use shouldn’t do much damage to the kid, but this doesn’t qualify either for a parent-of-the-year award.) In Utero’s central track is “Dumb”; sung meltingly over a cello, it’s a wounded love song to a psycho hose-beast:

My heart is broke

But I have some glue

Help me inhale

And mend it with you.

Not everything is ducky (“I’m married / buried,” Cobain sings at the end of the album) but this song and “Rape Me” suggest that Cobain’s beginning to think more than a few hours into the future. The latter song’s central cry is “I’m not the only one”; the degradation he might have once nihilistically celebrated is now a source of human bonding. Cobain found similar succor with his wife, who (so Azerrad says) gave birth while a detoxing Cobain threw up beside her. “I tried hard to have a father / But instead I had a dad,” he sings in the assertively autobiographical “Serve the Servants.” He hatched a new Kurt Cobain, who had a kid and finally realized how naive it is to think that after the first breath there is no other.

Important Columnist Health News

Hitsville can now report that the “Sickville” faithful readers were presented with two weeks ago was necessitated by a nasty instance of food poisoning. Whether this was accidental or a case of attempted columnicide remains to be seen; investigators are at work. But Hitsville sincerely salutes the Northwestern emergency room and the staff at 8 West in Wesley Pavilion for their assiduous care….Reactor Magazine, which entrancingly chronicles techno culture in Chicago, celebrates its first birthday with a rave-ish celebration tomorrow night. The magazine promises “a huge crew of artists, performers, drummers, clothing designers, lighting specialists, visual distortionists and smart drink mixers.” The legal, 18-and-over affair starts at midnight Saturday and lasts to morning. You can find out the location by calling 604-1833 on Saturday.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Anton Corbijn.