Whining rock stars will like Nirvana's newest

MUSIC REVIEW

September 21, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

How good is life at the top of the charts?

Not very. In fact, it's pretty lousy -- or so Kurt Cobain makes it seem on the new Nirvana album, "In Utero" (Geffen 24607, arriving in record stores today).

"Teen-age angst has paid off well/ Now I'm bored and old," he snarls, opening the album with a none-too-subtle reference to the chart-topping "Smells Like Teen Spirit." But success, in Cobain's view, is pure poison, and he spends much of the album spitting venom at those responsible for his high-profile misery -- the media, the music biz and the morons who bought "Nevermind" without really grasping what Nirvana had to say.

Just listen to the way he rants against "self-appointed judges" over the clattering guitars and clangorous drums of "Serve the Servants," a song that seems to detail Co- bain's resentment at having to honor interview requests and endure photo sessions -- to serve, in other words, the "servants" of the media. Or check out the way the opening riff in "Rape Me" alludes to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," a musical clue that clearly conveys the extent to which he feels violated by success.

That may seem a bit self-dramatizing, but feeling sorry for himself has become a Cobain specialty. Granted, it's not easy being declared a spokesman for your generation,but as much as Cobain apparently hates having to have something to say -- "What else could I write/ I don't have the right," he moans in "All Apologies" -- he certainly has no qualms about wallowing in his unworthiness. Scan through the album, and you'll hear him at various points declare himself to be "dumb," "a liar and a thief" and "the king of illiterature."

Cheerful, isn't he?

Not that "Nevermind" was a barrel of laughs itself. But at least that album was rooted in common experience, taking the an

omie and unfocused anger of the indie rock underground and distilling it into viscerally tuneful punk rock. When Cobain sang of "our little tribe" in "Smells Like Teen Spirit," there were plenty of listeners who felt like they belonged, and for them it hardly mattered whether he vented spleen in "Breed" or waxed sarcastic in "Lithium" -- all of his songs rang true to their own experience.

But who could empathize with the experiences described on "In Utero"? Axl Rose?

'Fraid so. Because with "In Utero," Nirvana has fallen victim to that most dreaded of pop culture diseases, the Whiny Rock Star syndrome. Beneath the sarcasm of "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" lies a deep vein of self-pity, and that's why Cobain keeps tripping over his own misery -- "I do not want what I have got" and its ilk -- when he means to be hammering away at the commodification of rock rebellion.

Cobain's narcissistic negativism wouldn't be so annoying if he weren't such a solid tunesmith. But for all its lyrical excesses, "In Utero" still leaves the listener humming along with all the pretty songs, even if -- to invert the chorus of "In Bloom" -- he does know what they mean.

Typically, Cobain and company haven't made it easy for the pop fans in the crowd to join in. In place of producer Butch Vig, who gave a warm, semi-metal luster to the sound of "Nevermind," "In Utero" derives its sound from the ultra-abrasive aesthetic of Steve Albini, whose production emphasizes shrieking feedback and aural clutter over pop hooks and pleasant choruses.

That's why "Scentless Apprentice" tops its slamming drums and sledgehammer guitar with a vocal so distorted it reduces its chorus to noise, and why "Milk It" trades the melodic potential of its verse and chorus for the blunt impact of sudden volume. Because if you make the music accessible, you run the risk that the wrong people -- average schlubs like us -- might turn up at a Nirvana concert and ruin the ambience for those fans as disaffected and cool as the band itself.

And what a shame that would be.

Nirvana doesn't totally undercut its pop instincts. "Heart-Shaped Box," a song about the mixed emotions that come with being boxed in by misdirected love, frames its melancholy melody with a beautifully understated arrangement that's as warm and alluring as anything on "Nevermind." Even better is "All Apologies," which augments its arpeggiated bass line and arching melody with enough cello to balance the overdriven guitar of the chorus.

Unfortunately, those songs are more the exception than the rule on "In Utero." But look on the bright side -- if Kurt Cobain really is as sick of adulation as he says, he probably won't have to put up with it for too much longer.

NIRVANA

If you'd like to hear excerpts from Nirvana's "In Utero," call Sundial, The Sun's free telephone information service.

You will need a touch-tone phone. Call (410) 783-1800 (268-7736 in Anne Arundel County). After the greeting, punch in 6111.

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