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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

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