Kurt Cobain hates it all. He hates the fact that his band Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, sold 4 million copies. He hates those who criticize his wife, musician Courtney Love, and their lifestyle. He hates the hangers-on and reporters who lurk in the shadows ever since he became a reluctant celebrity. He hates that even though he envisions himself as a free-living punk-rocker, he still writes melodies anyone can chant along with-and even worse, people seem to like them. At least, that’s the feeling that permeates IN UTERO (DGC), on which Nirvana and its producer, the infamously prickly underground magnate Steve Albini, do their best to mangle Cobain’s very craft. The guitars often sound like hacksaws cutting through metal; voices degenerate into distorted squawks shrieking lyrics like ”Go awaaay!!” Songs start with coughs, count-offs, and idle strumming. And when Cobain finally opens his mouth to sing, his voice sounds laced with rust. At times, the album screams out its message: If you’re searching for another ”Smells Like Teen Spirit,” you’d best look elsewhere. In all fairness, anyone would be bugged-out by the head-spinning, and unexpected, success of Nevermind. It’s easy to see why that album connected; intended or not, it was a perfectly focused snapshot of generational malaise. Cobain wrote a batch of songs as hummable as anything on Top 40, but he sang them in a voice encrusted with disgust, rage, and torpor, as if he were trying to decide all along whether there was a point to rock & roll, to a career-to anything. He, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl barely had the energy to make it to the choruses of the songs. But when they did, the music, rooted in punk rock but never retro, erupted with long-suppressed bile and phlegm. Two years later, Nevermind is still an invigorating slap in the face; few other albums deemed ”alternative” have come remotely close. In Utero makes it clear that the trio now has a signature sound ready for the Patent Office. Most of these songs are built around a structure of lugubrious verses, second-wind blast of energy, and Cobain’s vein-bursting scream. Even so, and even with Albini’s accompanying sonic gunk, In Utero can’t hide what was clear from Nevermind-that Cobain writes terrifically punchy songs and that the band ravages them into beautiful, brutalizing clatter. Some of them, like ”Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” and ”Pennyroyal Tea,” are among the most powerful moments they’ve ever committed to tape. It feels like you’re driving over a road that has its share of potholes and smoothly paved spots-rough, but exciting. The album also has, unexpectedly, some of the band’s most tender moments-relatively speaking, of course. ”I was drawn into your magnet tar pit trap/I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black,” Cobain sings on the single ”Heart-Shaped Box.” The song’s slow rumble of a melody and Cobain’s more subdued delivery, though, transform those words into something incredibly sweet, almost romantic. Yet something is rotten in the state of Cobain. Thanks in part to Nevermind, ”alternative rock” has become just another marketing term, and the rule that guided the ’80s underground rock scene from which Nirvana sprang- selling records is the root of all evil-no longer applies. Even an old- guard independent band like Soul Asylum is more than willing to market itself in order to cash in. In comparison, Cobain sees himself as a purist. Rock & roll is, to him, not merely mass entertainment, and rock stars are not mere celebrities. (This philosophy partly explains why the band recruited Albini, known for helming some of the most unlistenable punk records of the last decade.) ”What is wrong with me?” Cobain screams in ”Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” whose title is a play on standard music-industry marketing terms for what most of us call albums. When it comes to analyzing the pop star-making process, though, Cobain is no Pete Townshend-at least, not yet-so mostly he vents. Too many of the songs on In Utero are little more than defensive screeds against anyone who has exploited Cobain or merely rubbed him the wrong way. The gripping ”Rape Me” opens with the chords of ”Teen Spirit”-intentional, one hopes-and builds into a furious rant with lyrics as dumb as anything on a death-metal anthem (”My favorite inside source/I’ll kiss your open sores”). All of this is more articulate than any Soundgarden lyric, but too often, Cobain just comes off sounding petulant. That hostility leaves In Utero with a gaseous aftertaste. The music is often mesmerizing, cathartic rock & roll, but it is rock & roll without release, because the band is suspicious of the old-school rock cliches such a release would evoke. (It’s ironic that the album’s weakest moments-clanking messes like ”Milk It” and ”Scentless Apprentice”-are its attempts to be discordant and ”underground”; without a solid melody, Nirvana can be nearly hapless.) In a larger context, Nirvana seems to be waging a worthy war against the corporate takeover of rock & roll. It’s a valid fight, and In Utero makes a case for rock as the grating voice of the underclass. But watch out, Kurt-that target straight ahead might be your own foot. B+
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