While Alice In Chains were the superior band, it's Nirvana that truly embodied the spirit of the grunge movement; more than any other group in recent memory they gave voice to a neglected, disenfranchised segment of a generation that had been kept silent and suppressed for so long that once the floodgates were opened their bile, disillusionment and vitriol spread across an entire genre of music.
Giving a voice to these people, while it accounted for much of the group's commercial success and their enduring legacy, is also their greatest liability, as it's this empty nihilism, angsty posturing and immature introspection that animates nearly all of their work. While hailed as a poet by much of his fanbase, who relate to every bit of angst-ridden, infelicitous verse, Cobain's lyrics are bereft of any insight, sophistication or guiding intelligence; while I would never question the integrity or honesty of his 'poetry,' earnestness alone isn't a virtue, and by simply indiscriminately pouring out all of his thoughts, reflections and emotions into his work Cobain creates lyrics that can only appeal to wholly likeminded individuals. If one doesn't conform to the angsty teen stereotype that Cobain's music is intended for then one will likely fail to find his verse captivating or empowering, and may very well wish that this part of the population was never given a voice at all.
Cobain's music adheres to a similar paradigm; on Bleach his work is invariably suffused with an overpowering rage with a strong undercurrent of self-loathing, and Cobain seems to favor raw spontaneity over any kind of sophisticated songwriting craftsmanship. While his music derives some measure of potency from this dynamic, it also results in primitive, derivative and generic tracks that are largely interchangeable. Thus the album's opener, Blew, is a highlight predominantly thanks to its positioning on the CD; as nearly every track is fundamentally reminiscent of one another, Blew sounds considerably more fresh as the formula hasn't had the chance to grow stale yet.
The music tends to be centered around riffs, but these riffs are so standard, rudimentary and familiar that they lack any real power or individuality. Worse, Cobain's conception of how to achieve memorability seems to center around repeating the songs' refrains over and over again with no rhyme or reason.
Not every track shares these vices; as mentioned Blew succeeds largely on the basis of its location on the album, but it's also more catchy and musically fleshed out than many of the other numbers.
It's About A Girl, however, that truly stands out. A heavy pop song with an infectious vocal melody that surpasses anything else contained on the album, it's more than just another grunge anthem, and proves that Cobain was capable of more than generating an armada of faceless misanthropic and suicidal compositions. Its relatively relaxed, restrained nature when compared to the relentless anger that typifies the other tracks enables an actually melody to grow out of the album's core dynamics, demonstrating that hooks and grunge aren't wholly incompatible.
Ultimately, however, most of the album simply isn't very interesting or compelling, as Bleach amounts to little more than a parade of generic grunge clichés. There's little originality or imagination to be found, the songwriting is far too primitive and uninspired, and the band's limited instrumental prowess sabotages any of their myriad attempts to jam and solo.
There are some effective moments, like the (comparatively) subtle menace of Floyd The Barber, but by and large little truly stands out. It's difficult to imagine that even someone who identifies closely with Cobain would be able to enjoy such a monotonous experience, and even those who defend Kurt the prophet should have a difficult time defending Kurt the musician.
Nonetheless the album is worshipped in many circles, and despite its lack of substance Bleach is undeniably a highly influential historical document. One can't underestimate the power that music wields when one can closely relate to it, transfiguring what I perceive as tedious, repetitive and maddeningly primitive angst anthems into a kind of gospel for a subsection of the population.
Few albums are the victims of hype to the extent of Nirvana's sophomore effort, a CD that transfigured a cadre of underground misanthropic musicians into the saviors of rock and roll. Due to this inordinate level of hype it's difficult for most listeners to divorce the quality Nevermind from its historical connotations and the effusive praise it elicited from the critical community, resulting in reactions that invariably veer toward extremes with no reasonable middle-ground in sight. Thus the album bifurcates its listeners between devoted worshippers who revere it as a sacrosanct masterpiece and the inevitable backlash hoppers who savagely excoriate it for its inherent, unmistakable primitivism.
As tends to be the case with most polarizing albums of this nature, neither response seems quite adequate; extreme reactions of this type are apt to blind listeners to either the shortcomings or merits of a CD, one of the innate perils of albums hyped to the degree of Nevermind.
At any rate, if Nirvana ever delivered a major artistic statement then it was certainly Nevermind, but I'm somewhat skeptical in this regard as well; I'm not entirely sure of what level of artistry I perceive in the album, while the 'statement' it makes is not altogether dissimilar to the statement made on Nirvana's debut, Bleach. Nirvana were always a rather limited band when it came to intelligence or depth, ergo they tended to rehash the same message over and over again. Thus what differentiates the statement in Nevermind from that of its predecessor and follow-ups is the fact that it's now filtered through Cobain's vastly improved facility for songwriting, which enables him to convey his message in a far more convincing fashion; while his lyrics would never improve, he certainly progressed swiftly in the melodic department, and this ameliorated music helped compensate for his inadequacy as a poet, creating the illusion that depth or insight is contained within his nihilistic narratives.
However, while the band may remain stillborn as far as artistry and intelligence are concerned, the aforementioned refinement in the songwriting department elevates Nevermind far above its lackluster predecessor. Whereas Bleach was largely a parade of interchangeable angsty grunge anthems, Nevermind is filled with terrific melodies and stellar hooks; even when intellectually bankrupt the album remains compelling, deftly incorporating pop aesthetics into the heavy instrumentation. Catchy vocal melodies abound on the album, this time brilliant in their simplicity as opposed to grating in their primitivism; the main hook in Lithium, for example (the primal scream shout of "yeah"), may be undeniably simple, but this doesn't dispel its potency or memorability.
There are no bad songs on Nevermind, but rather an uninterrupted procession of entertaining grunge numbers. Smells Like Teen Spirit is certainly the most well known track on the album (a strong statement given the number of hit singles the CD generated), an anthemic ode to loathing both his generation and himself on Cobain's part. The final verses may be questionable, as his indictment of teenage ignorance ("I find it hard/It's hard to find/Oh well whatever/Nevermind") doesn't change the fact this Cobain's own level of erudition doesn't really exceed the articulateness of that passage to a meaningful extent, but the song is still a rightful classic and permanent staple in the pantheon of grunge music. The track rocks furiously, as Cobain's fueled by his ever present disgust and contempt for every facet of his zeitgeist; the song boasts a stellar riff, magnificent vocal melodies and a guitar solo that, while it's been vilified thanks to its simplicity, still isn't compromised in the catchiness department despite this primitivism.
Smells Like Teen Spirit is hardly the only highlight, however. In Bloom, with its infectious sing-along chorus (the heavy-handedness of the irony of this fact given the lyrics is a bit much, but it's probably subtle by Cobain's standards) and heavy riffage, is another grunge masterwork, while the moody Come As You Are is unforgettable with its menacing undertones and terrific bassline.
Breed, while far from thrash metal, is one of the faster tracks on the album, with idiotic lyrics that are redeemed by their catchiness and made all the more effective by their accelerated pace, while the aforementioned Lithium acquits itself admirably in the usage of the old rock staple of soft/loud contrasts.
Elsewhere Polly is lyrically disturbing but entrancing nonetheless, while Territorial Pissings lacks as well-defined a melody as some of the other numbers but is still enjoyable thanks to its fast, heavy riffage. Stay Away may adhere too much to the fast rock paradigm of Breed and Territorial Pissings but is still catchy in its own right, Lounge Act is another entertaining rocker, while the closer Something In The Way is haunting if surprisingly bland at times. Drain You is another classic, sporting brilliant vocal melodies, and On A Plain features stellar hooks in the refrain.
Thus Nevermind manages to be flawed despite being bereft of filler, a unique situation made possible thanks to the enormous disparity between the caliber of Kurt Cobain's musical and lyrical songwriting. Cobain's 'poetry' is perpetually grating in its simplistic indictment of his generation, a message all the more corrupted by the sheer idiocy of many of the album's lyrical passages. While his trademark self-loathing and disillusionment may be possible for many to relate to, it would have to manifest itself in a far more intelligent, insightful form for me to label it as anything other than angsty confessionals and onanistic venting.
Fortunately these lyrical woes, while not fully redeemed, are at least largely diluted thanks to the quality of the melodies. Nevermind represents Cobain's peak as a songwriter, and the resulting product is a highly entertaining affair. The album sadly paved the way for myriad me-too grunge outfits with only a fraction of Nirvana's talents, tarnishing the historical legacy of Cobain and company, but nevertheless the album is often immensely entertaining, if mostly on a purely visceral, axiomatically gratifying level.
Predictably enough, the dearth of immediately available Nirvana material left in the wake of Cobain's suicide led to a proliferation of bootlegs and half-baked archive releases. Thus it's unsurprising that an official release that compiled a plethora of tracks that were otherwise restricted to obscure bootlegs would be fully embraced to the point of largely being regarded as a legitimate entry in Nirvana's severely limited canon, achieving mass acceptance thanks to its lack of overlap with past releases and array of previously impossible to find content from Cobain and company.
What is surprising, however, is the fact that Incesticide was released prior to Cobain's early demise; as opposed to appeasing a fanbase mourning the passing of their rock messiah, an audience coveting even the slightest sound-byte of Nirvana material, the rarities compilation was simply intended to act as a way to keep the band's name in circulation during their year off between Nevermind and In Utero.
Thus Incesticide had a very modest purpose, never envisioned as more than a minor complement to Nirvana's full-fledged albums; thanks to this limited function the album was seemingly destined to obscurity, fated to act as bait for completists and hardcore Cobain-worshippers.
In this capacity the album would likely have enjoyed at least a modicum of success, but intervening circumstances elevated Incesticide far above these meager ambitions, as Cobain's suicide transfigured a cheap sales ploy into an immortal historical document; rather than irrevocably being reduced to the role of 'fan exploitation' the CD inherited the title of 'the great lost Nirvana album.'
As most sagaciously anticipate from any rarities collection, Incesticide is indeed rather erratic, but it's this very inconsistency that makes the album considerably more interesting than Bleach; whereas Nirvana's debut offered little in the way of variety, a monotonous affair that often resembled a parade of interchangeable grunge anthems, Incesticide presents the group dabbling in genre exercises in a manner that was never depicted on any of the band's proper releases. While this leads to myriad misfires, it ensures that even the weak material is at least moderately interesting, cultivating a level of diversity that's apt to sustain a listener's attention for far longer than a superior yet one-note outing.
That's not to say that Incesticide is Nirvana's White Album, bursting with creativity and stylistic experimentation; the album is merely diverse by Nirvana's limited standards, which is hardly tantamount to the kind of variety offered by more versatile rock outfits. Nevertheless any measure of diversity is welcome on a Nirvana album, and it's this fact that makes Incesticide a rather intriguing proposition.
Thus in the interest of diversity the album includes excursions into pop rock, heavy metal juggernauts, unpredictable covers and homages to the band's major influences, as well as their signature grunge sensibility. These stylistic exhibitions don't always turn out well; for example, Nirvana's emulation of the Pixies on Hairspray Queen leaves much to be desired, as Cobain's takes on Black Francis's trademark primal screams invariably turn out as grating, headache inducing dissonance, while the song itself is bereft of the idiosyncratic personality that animates most Pixies fare.
Nonetheless the band should be commended for trying something different, even though Incesticide largely accounts for why Nirvana never further pursued these artistic directions. The album often feels like a forum for the band to work out their sound, determining precisely what works for them. Resultantly a multitude of tracks feel like abortions, introductions of new ideas that are attempted then, wisely, dismissed as failures. This may sound like a condemnation of the album, and in a way it is, but it's this process that makes Incesticide an interesting listen, as in some ways it's fascinating to witness exactly how Nirvana became the band that produced the likes of Bleach and Nevermind.
Unfortunately the novelty of listening to Nirvana struggling to find themselves inevitably wears off, inspiring one to look to the music for something else to latch onto, searching for artistic substance to replace the charm of watching a band develop in their embryonic phases. It's here that the listener will doubtlessly be disappointed, as the quality of much of the material on Incesticide is rather suspect. The album's bookmarked by two strong tracks, the opening rocker Dive and the even better grunge anthem Aneurysm, but much of the content in between is decidedly lacking in the hooks department.
Sliver, while melodically anemic, is at least interesting thanks to its unique nature as a slice of life tale of a young boy, but tracks like Stain are little more than Nirvana at their most generic, offering the same self-loathing misanthropy and primitive riffage that characterizes the majority of songs ever penned by Kurt Cobain.
The same could be said for much of the album, and even when the band appear to veer off in new directions they remain fundamentally the same group they've always been, as Cobain brings the same emotional baggage into every new enterprise he ventures into. Thus the variety, while the album's greatest asset, is largely illusory, merely offering the same group wearing a slightly different mask. Kurt Cobain's emotional issues are inseparable from all of his work, and this is the very factor that prevented Nirvana's progression throughout the entirety of their careers.
In Utero is Kurt Cobain's rather transparent attempt to atone for 'selling out the underground' through the glossy, poppy sheen of Nirvana's commercial breakthrough Nevermind; however, like much of the angst-ridden idol's projects, this was a considerably misguided, wrongheaded endeavor.
In an effort to shed some of his newly initiated, mainstream fanbase, who had little knowledge of underground music or anti-corporate ethos but rather had simply been drawn to Nevermind's pop hooks, Cobain attempted to produce a highly inaccessible opus, though the resulting product is far from the difficult, uninviting listen that he had envisioned it as.
Cobain's first move toward building a fan-alienating masterpiece was to recruit the legendary purveyor of dissonance, Steve Albini, hoping that this partnership would yield a challenging Surfer Rosa-like marriage of aural discord and off-putting sonic aesthetics; unfortunately for the suicidal grunge icon the final product bears far more resemblance to his prior work than any Pixies material.
Whereas Pixies content deftly complemented its layers of dissonance through its idiosyncratic songwriting and rich, imaginatively nightmarish soundscapes, on In Utero it's abundantly clear that the fundamental foundation that this discord is superimposed over its comprised of what ultimately amount to catchy pop hooks in a similar vein to those on Nevermind.
While Cobain devoted much of his brief career to combating this assertion, the fact of the matter is that at heart his songwriting has a conspicuously poppy nature, and while this characterization was anathema to the contumacious grunge pioneer it's also his greatest asset.
The result of this affinity for melodic songwriting is an album that, while highly dissonant, is also far less challenging than it had been intended to be, and likely would fail to intimidate the mainstream audience that Cobain strove to expel. Pop hooks abound on In Utero no matter how innately discordant the music is, and one need merely search beneath the surface of the layers of dissonance to find a rich supply of catchy vocal melodies and axiomatically gratifying riffs.
Thus In Utero completely fails on the level it was intended to work on, in the process making it a huge success on a level that completely negates the concepts behind its original design. Whereas it was supposed to repel listeners with its aural abrasiveness, it simply entertains with the hooks and melodies that constitute its foundation.
Unfortunately, as Nirvana were an inherent flawed band, the album isn't a complete success on a melodic level, sporting considerably more filler than its seminal predecessor. The track sequencing is highly questionable, as after an extremely strong first handful of songs the album begins to drag, and there isn't always a great melody waiting to be discovered beneath the membrane of sonic discord.
Nevertheless the album boasts its fair share of Nirvana classics (or at least demi-classics). Serve The Servants is a stellar opener making an all too important first impression just as Smells Like Teen Spirit immediately captivated fans of Nevermind. Scentless Apprentice continues to sustain that high level of quality, leading to Heart-Shaped Box which may very well be my favorite Nirvana song.
While Heart-Shaped Box may not feature enough progression over its runtime to justify its extended length, rather simply repeating the same sections over and over again, the song is still sufficiently strong that this experience never grows tedious. The soft-hard contrast trick has been endlessly abused by the group, but that doesn't dilute the potency of that dynamic on this number, as the song alternates between haunting, menacing verses and its vicious, shattering chorus.
As for the next track, Rape Me may shamelessly recycle Smells Like Teen Spirit's riff, and it's certainly far too reliant on immature shock value (as is evident from its very title), but it's still quite catchy and entertaining, though it receives no additional praise for once again gratuitously pushing the envelope as far as lyrical content is concerned.
At this point the album sadly loses momentum, never really recapturing this level of quality until the anthemic and surprisingly restrained closer All Apologies which is about as close to moving as Nirvana gets, managing this feat without excessive dissonance, screaming or distortion. The song was a hit, and while it's rather atypical of the band's usual style it's still an appropriate note to go out on, as it's the final track on the group's final album.
While the remainder of the material fails to match the standards of the beginning of the album, little of it is objectionable or offensive. Dumb, with its repetition of the line "I think I'm dumb," represents a rare moment of clarity for Cobain, though its melody is familiar and rudimentary at best. Later tracks like tourette's flirt far too closely with dissonance, ultimately degenerating into pure cacophonous noisemaking, but there are certainly laudable aspects to numbers like Pennyroyal Tea and Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle.
Thus In Utero is an erratic but nonetheless appropriate swansong for Nirvana, with its unevenness aptly representing the conflicted nature of the group and, in particular, Kurt Cobain. While his perpetually misanthropic lyrics may read as a suicide note to some (though no more so than on his previous albums) and thus compose one of the album's main attractions for some, as far as I'm concerned In Utero is more important as a testament to the fact that, at heart, Cobain was a truly gifted songwriter, capable of penning a plethora of catchy, rewarding melodies. While Cobain would certainly despise being congratulated for his superior pop instincts in his eulogy, it would likely be more honest than the more commonly accepted variation orated by much of the critical and music-buying community.