Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Nirvana's In Utero Review (Gillian G. Gaar, 33 1/3)

I loved Nirvana when I was in high school. Nevermind was the first album I bought with money I earned from my first after school job, washing dishes in a local restaurant (and then played repeatedly in the kitchen much to the chefs’ annoyance!). I enjoyed In Utero but preferred Nevermind though the older I got the more I appreciated the variety and ambition of In Utero until it became my favourite Nirvana album. So continuing my exploration of the excellent 33 ⅓ series I thought I’d check out Gillian G. Gaar’s book on the album - which disappointingly turned out to be the worst I’ve come across in the range so far. 

Put simply, the recording of In Utero was remarkably unremarkable. The band recorded demos in Brazil, they hired Steve Albini to produce it, they put together the record with Kurt changing the song titles as they went - just standard stuff. Kurt took lyrics from his journals, he recorded a version of Rape Me with his daughter on his knee, squalling in the background. Albini’s mix of the album was panned by the record label who wanted a more polished sound. So far, so dull - I’d read all of this before in Charles R. Cross’s biography of Kurt, Heavier Than Heaven. 

Part of the problem is Gaar’s writing style. She writes something like “Krist wanted to raise the bass levels” and then there’s a quote from Krist where he says the same thing. Then Gaar writes another statement, backed up by another mundane quote. The style is akin to a kid writing an essay where they’re told that each point has to be backed up by a quote so the end result is a literal bland jumble of straightforward sentences. It also doesn’t help that most of the detail here is about the band tinkering with the sound, re-recording versions of songs, and spending two weeks on the track listing. 

About the only interesting thing I found out in this book was that the old man in the Heart Shaped Box video collapsed on the set from undiagnosed cancer after shooting his scenes; one of the lines in the song references cancer. The video’s director, Anton Corbijn, also reveals the colour effect achieved in the video as filmed in colour, transferred to black and white, and each still hand-coloured, which is why the video looks so vivid. I also discovered the song “Sappy” from this book that I hadn’t heard until recently and which was a song Kurt recorded and re-recorded for years, unable to get the sound to his satisfaction. 

Some of the books in the 33 ⅓ series show some amazing stories behind the albums, like Steve Matteo’s Let It Be, but unfortunately Gillian G Gaar’s book on In Utero is not required reading. By refraining from describing Kurt’s troubled personal life, she’s produced a book that’s extremely dry of anything interesting and by sticking to the tedious chronology of its production she shows that the story behind In Utero isn’t worth telling. I came away from the book little the wiser about the album and its artistic qualities, though it did get me listening to it again, reminding me of how great some of the songs remain. Listen to the album but skip this 100-page book of dreary writing.

"Nirvana" "In Utero" (33 1/3)

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