TITLE: IN UTERO
THE BOTTOM LINE: The Seattle trio takes a great leap forward with an aggressive, abrasive rock album.
Nirvana: a place or state of oblivion to care, pain or external reality. This is not heaven, surely, but a state in which suffering is transcended and desire extinguished. In any case, ever since the members of the post-punk rock band Nirvana became the surprise darlings of MTV and pop radio, they've gone through a media barrage that seemed the very opposite of nirvana. Now their powerful new album takes all the band's media-glare anguish and alchemizes it into noisy, brainy rock 'n' roll. "Teenage angst has paid off well/ Now I'm bored and old," Kurt Cobain sings on the opening song, Serve the Servants. "Self-appointed judges judge/ More than they have sold."
In Utero: inside the womb; before birth. The title is a misnomer. Nirvana has been reborn. Its 1991 album Nevermind was a great leap forward (after Bleach, in 1989), selling more than 4 million copies. Song after song started off with gorgeous guitar hooks, as in the anxious chords that kicked off Smells Like Teen Spirit, or the bouncy bass-guitar strumming that launched Lithium. Its punk-inspired, we-couldn't-care-less ethos seemed to reflect the restless apathy some young people felt toward their times. "Oh well, whatever, nevermind," Cobain sang on Teen Spirit. The strength of Nevermind was its ambiguity; the next logical step was an album with structure, a clear vision.
Grunge: loud, crunching rock 'n' roll. Grunge is dead. Put away the flannels that dressed it up, because real innovators like nothing better than to tear off the labels stuck on them by critics. Producer Butch Vig, Nirvana singer- guitarist Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl helped originate the grunge sound. On In Utero, they enlist the help of producers Steve Albini (Breeders) and Scott Litt (R.E.M) to help dismantle it. The two producers make the album a satisfying whole.
The tracks produced by Litt -- All Apologies and Heart-Shaped Box -- have an immediate, radio-friendly tang. The latter song is the album's most accessible, powering along at moderate rock speed and conjuring images of emotional entrapment: "I've been locked inside your heart-shaped box for a week . . . I was drawn into your magnet tar pit trap." In contrast, many of the Albini pieces sound ravaged, almost ruined; but as with buried treasures, there are rewards for persistence and exploration. If you listen repeatedly to such sonically explosive songs as Serve the Servants and Pennyroyal Tea, the structure of each gradually becomes clear, and melodies surface.
Alternative rock: however Nirvana defines it. Despite the fears of some alternative-music fans, Nirvana hasn't gone mainstream, though this potent new album may once again force the mainstream to go Nirvana. In Utero's one misstep may be the dubious song Rape Me: "Rape me, my friend . . . rape me again." It's meant to be antirape, but beer-blown frat boys may or may not get the irony. The last and best song, All Apologies, seems to anticipate and confront such questions: "What else should I be/ All apologies . . . What else could I write . . . All in all is all we all are." It's a riddling, fitting ending to a great album. Nirvana may not mean heaven, but the trio's new release is very close to divine.