album, the 1993 followup to the 30- millionselling was a pricklier album than its predecessor. Recorded by Steve Albini in two weeks, it represents a clearer picture of how singer Kurt Cobain tried to integrate two contradictory impulses: punk mayhem and bubblegumpop melody. Whereas Nevermind smoothed the rough edges, In Utero underlined them. The album presents the band at extremes: vulnerable and chaotic. It was in many ways an affirmation of the ’ 70s and ’ 80s underground and the notion that guitarbassdrums rock ’ n’ roll still could inspire and upend.
Unfortunately, that is not the case with the overstuffed 70- track In Utero box set, which adds little in the way of revelatory new material that might justify its hefty $ 100- plus price tag. As souvenir items go, it’s a nice reminder of what once was. But the idea all along was that “alternative” was an engine for change, that Rock Inc. was being shoved out the door while bands like the Jesus Lizard, the Melvins, Sonic Youth, the Flaming Lips and Ween signed major- label deals and ransacked the palace. It didn’t quite work out that way. Within a few years, the movement had become a commodity, spawning a festival ( Lollapalooza), a commercial radio format and a bevy of sound- alikes on the charts ( Bush, Seven Mary Three, Stone Temple Pilots).
In Utero saw it coming. Cobain understood how quickly things would come undone as the cash started to flow. “I am my own parasite,” he barked on the scorched- earth Milk It. The album’s second half is a series of noisy screeds, finally descending on the heartbreaking All Apologies.
“What else should I be... What else could I say?... What else should I write,” Cobain sang, as if interrogating himself about what it all meant and whether it was worth it. His music was part of a soundtrack made largely by and for the 82 million Americans born between 1965 and 1984, the so- called generation X as defined in Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture.
This was the generation that came of age after the mostly prosperous, post- Second World War baby boomers. A segment of this community — including Cobain, Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder — found its voice on the seveninch singles available only at independent record stores and heard only on college radio stations, a world in which Hüsker Dü and the Melvins mattered as much or more than huge ’ 80s hit- makers such as Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen.
Their music questioned everything, including itself. That’s why All Apologies still resonates. On the latest Pearl Jam single, Mind Your Manners, Vedder also grapples with big questions — of faith, doubt and the purpose of rebellion. He does it over a scratchy guitar riff and furious drum volleys that hold up well next to the music Pearl Jam made during its ’ 90s heyday.
On Nine Inch Nails’ Hesitation Marks, Reznor is loaded with uncertainty, almost to the point of inertia. Cobain and many of his peers were rock- music fans who understood the pitfalls of stardom and nostalgia and how that could undermine everything they valued. Reznor, who used keyboards and computers to fashion some of the most aggressive rock music ever made in the early ’ 90s, figured out how to sound just as disturbing in the quieter terrain of his 1999 masterpiece, The Fragile. After that creative high point, what was left for him to do?
Hesitation Marks wrestles with how to reconcile Reznor’s corrosive sound and attitude with where he is now: a well- rewarded, middle- aged rock star with a wife and family. “Everything I say has come before... I am never certain anymore/ I am just a shadow of a shadow of a shadow,” he sings.
Cobain, Vedder, Reznor and many of their peers were rock stars who had swagger, but were always self- conscious about it. They were their era’s answer to a lineage that went back to the Beatles and Elvis Presley, but was shaded by punk- rock guilt and skepticism. To quote the wise men in Mudhoney, who never climbed as high as many of the alternative bands they influenced, on I Like it Small: “Limited appeal!... Dingy basements!... No expectations!” Kurt Cobain felt exactly the same way in 1989, and it ticked him off. Then everything changed.
Cobain became a bigger deal than he ever could’ve imagined. Even after he died, Nirvana just kept on selling: Far more Nirvana music has been released after the singer killed himself in 1994 than in the band’s relatively brief lifetime. No wonder that for nearly every generation X hero of the ’ 90s, Cobain’s flippantly acerbic opening line on In Utero must sound prophetic: “Teenage angst has paid off well.”
— Chicago Tribune