Released in September 1993, In Utero is widely regarded by Nirvana fans as the band’s career high point. Yet, despite its stature, the fact that it was followed little more than six months later by Kurt Cobain’s untimely and tragic death has in some ways clouded the legacy of Nirvana and their studio swan song. Forever doomed to be combed through and dissected for links to the singer’s suicide, Nirvana and In Utero deserve better.
One of many things that made Cobain such an extraordinary talent as a songwriter was his ability to put across personal contradictions in his lyrics. Yes, he could convey profound sadness:
“my heart is broke but I have some glue, help me inhale and mend it with you” – Dumb.
He could also express his fears better than most:
“throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back” – Heart-Shaped Box
However, he was also a writer of rare wit. On In Utero, many of the observations on show reference his new found fame. It is no secret that this was a deeply uncomfortable change in circumstances for a man wracked with insecurity but Cobain was not blind to its absurdity. Indeed, some of the most engaging parts of this album are in these observations. For evidence, we need look no further than the wonderfully sardonic first line of opening track, Serve the Servants – “Teenage angst has paid off well”. Of course, self-deprecation is a dangerous animal. In the case of Cobain, it inevitably leads to questions on issues about himself and his feelings of self-worth. It’s a fine line between being able to laugh at one’s own absurdities and denigrating the complete self. It is quite possible, of course, even probable in the context of the song, that he was doing both. After all, there’s a real person behind this work! These are not the simplistic out-pourings of grief that are often so superficially described. People are more complex than that. People are more interesting than that. And the best art can communicate this.
The humor on Nirvana’s songs was not, of course, limited to fleeting moments of casually mocking their own work (although naming a song “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” is another fabulous example – a clear reference to the success of Smells Like Teen Spirit). Cobain was also capable of beautifully executed one-liners such as “If you ever need anything, please don’t hesitate and ask someone else first” from Very Ape. Humor is an undervalued tool in songwriting and Kurt Cobain had it in spades. Throughout Nirvana’s short career, their work is peppered with mischievousness and sly observation. It is difficult to imagine anyone writing In Bloom’s opening line, “Sell the kids for food” without a wry grin and a twinkle in their eye. Yes it’s dark but aren’t a lot of the best jokes?
Cobain’s demise, of course, was a huge personal tragedy for his family and friends. That goes without saying. For music fans, those of us who didn’t know him, we’ve been subjected to years of lazy and, often, crass journalism on his music in the years since his death – his entire body of work seemingly reduced to one long, drawn out suicide note. Critics have often stated that passing away at a young age after a career which burned as briefly as it did brightly, cemented Nirvana’s status as legendary and Cobain’s as an icon. The fact is that we don’t know what the future would have held for them but if anything, the circumstances surrounding his death seem to have caricaturised the singer and left the popular media with the most superficial of narratives. It seems grossly unfair for such a wonderfully three-dimensional songwriter to be left with such a dreary, one-dimensional legacy. Cobain, Nirvana and In Utero never needed such weighty context to highlight their quality.
Buy the 20th Anniversary Edition of ‘In Utero‘ – http://www.amazon.com/In-Utero-3LP-Anniversary-Edition/dp/B00E7SXRHY