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Favorite 90s Albums: #9 – Nirvana – “In Utero”

July 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Nirvana occupies a strange place in music history.  In the 90’s, they were universally seen as the most influential band on what came to be known as alternative rock, which was one of the defining phenomenons of the decade.  But in the last few years, it seems like the entire idea of alternative rock has gone by the wayside, replaced by a swath of indie bands that have gained increased exposure due to the internet and music sharing.  The so-called alternative rock stations of yesteryear are largely ignored and mocked, at least among people I know, as they play bands like Nickelback and Three Days Grace that copied Nirvana’s sound but sucked all of the energy and spirit out of it.

So what does all of this mean?  For one thing, it’s likely that Nirvana has influenced more bad music than any other band in the last 20 years, and in a way I think that has detracted from their legacy.  While the band always had haters, it seems like more than ever it’s become a popular thing to call Nirvana overrated, to chide them for being unoriginal, or to label frontman Kurt Cobain as someone who only has achieved the level of fame that he did because he killed himself at age 27.  Oddly, little of this discussion seems to be about the music:  Calling Nirvana overrated has just become another tool that people use to try to sound like they’re cooler than other people.

Of course, based on their placement of them on this list, you can probably guess what I think of these people.  I think they’re wrong.  Completely, insanely, embarrassingly wrong.  The kind of wrong that makes me wonder if they really have brains that are capable of rational thought.   Nirvana is largely deserving of all of the accolades they get and the reputation that they earned, and it is mostly due to Cobain, who is similarly worthy of all the praise heaped upon him.  It’s not a result of dying young (although I’m sure it helped), it’s a result of him being a genius songwriter and the perfect frontman for his generation.

What’s easy to forget about Cobain and Nirvana (even though I think it’s said a lot) is just how different they were from what had always existed in mainstream rock music before them.  The typical rock frontman before them had to be full of cocksure bravado, presenting himself with shirtless, chest-beating machismo.  Cobain was the complete opposite of that:  A sensitive, troubled guy who would often wear layers of sweaters to try to hide his scrawniness from the public.  And he replaced the typical rock male arrogance and swagger with an altruistic view of music:  While the typical arrogant male rock star would pat himself on the back for his success, Cobain was always willing to admit that he ripped off the Pixies, to credit contemporary bands that he enjoyed, or to trumpet his own favorite obscure bands of old.

Nirvana also came around at the perfect time.  They were different, and America badly wanted something different, particularly in rock music, which had been dominated by the bombastic hair metal bands of the 80’s.  They broke through with “Nevermind”, a great album that remains possibly the last truly game-changing moment in music.  But, while that album may be their most important (and one of the most important in rock music history), I think “In Utero” has always been the more interesting album.  “Nevermind” made them the biggest rock band in the world; “In Utero” is the fascinating follow-up from a band and frontman who never really seemed comfortable with that level of popularity.

While “Nevermind” was a huge album, the one criticism of it generally centered around its slick, radio-friendly production.  The band wanted to avoid that on their second album, so they brought in indie rock maven, punk rock icon, and all around badass Steve Albini to produce “In Utero.”  The choice of Albini fit perfectly with how uncomfortable Cobain was in the spotlight:  The band was seeking to get away from their mainstream image, and there was nobody more out of the mainstream than Albini, who would froth at the mouth at the very mention of signing with a major label or selling a song to a commercial.  He also gives “In Utero” his patented noisy sound, with very wide dynamics, vocals lower in the mix, and more of a “live feel” in general, which makes it sound better (to me) than “Nevermind.”

I’ve already mentioned that I think Cobain was a genius songwriter, but it’s admittedly a more subtle kind of genius.  It isn’t the kind of genius that immediately shows itself with amazingly complex thoughts that are beyond anything you can understand.  Rather, Cobain’s genius lies in simplicity.  His uncomplicated song structures, simple lyrics, and seemingly basic melodies never seem like they should be great, but they turned out to be transcendent.  He had a knack for finding that simple little melody or lyric that would just stick with you, such as “I tried hard to have a father but instead I had a dad” off album opener “Serve the Servants.”  It seems meaningless or nonsensical, but for some reason it’s a line I think about a lot, and that is a testament to Cobain’s abilities.

One of the aspects that I always enjoy about “In Utero” is how it seems almost like an attempt at a flop by Nirvana.  The band had gained a massive following, and in many ways the album seems like a test of that audience, an attempt to weed out the posers and fakers that Cobain believed had misappropriated their music.  “Scentless Apprentice” and “tourette’s”  in particular are far cries from the radio-friendly tunes of “Nevermind”, with each featuring Cobain howling over a massive amount of noise.

The ironic part is that “In Utero” became a big hit anyways, in part because Cobain just couldn’t seem to help himself when it comes to writing great rock songs.  Singles like “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Pennyroyal Tea” are both perfect examples of Nirvana’s quiet-loud dynamics (something they “borrowed” from The Pixies) and huge rock choruses.

The album also showed some growth and perhaps hints at maturity from the band, like on the world-weary album closer “All Apologies.”  While most of Nirvana’s songs prior to it had been straight-forward grunge rock, “All Apologies” sounded more folk influenced with its cello and Cobain’s bleak lyrics.  At the end, he refrains “all in all is all we are”, a typical Cobain-ism that sounds more significant than it should be.  “All Apologies” is the ideal closing track to Nirvana’s brief career, and a glimpse at what may have lied ahead for the band had Cobain lived on.

Cobain’s death makes it difficult to evaluate his career objectively, and certainly it has been romanticized.  But I don’t think it’s an accident that Nirvana is the one band from the scene that continues to be acclaimed, the one that continues to be listened to, and the one that continues to inspire people.  “Nevermind” was the commercial breakthrough, but I think “In Utero” does a lot more to explain why this band continues to be cherished by so many.  It’s a daring, ambitious, progressive album from a band that probably could have put out anything and had it sell like hotcakes.  More than anything else, I think that sense of ambition and punk spirit is what separates Nirvana from their grunge counterparts, and makes them one of the best rock bands of the 90’s.

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Favorite 90s Albums: #10 – Neutral Milk Hotel – “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”

July 12, 2011 1 comment

I should hate “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea.”  Really, I should.  I mean, a nasal voiced, hipster white guy singing about how sad he is after reading Anne Frank’s diary?  It would be difficult to imagine a lamer concept for an album or one that is deserving of more ridicule.  And as a devoted fan of girl rock and hard-hitting rock music in general, sensitive male-fronted folk-rock lies pretty far outside of my comfort zone.

And yet, here we are.  I do love “In The Aeroplane Over the Sea” — maybe not as much as a lot of other people, given that is it one of the most beloved indie albums ever, but enough to consider it one of the finest albums of what I consider the greatest decade in music.

In trying to articulate why I love “Aeroplane” so much when I typically can’t stand wimpy guy music, I decided that I love it because it is coming from such an honest place.  There is something undeniable about frontman Jeff Mangum’s sincere, relentless dedication to this seemingly silly concept, and the fact that doubt never seemed to enter his mind:  At no point did he say, “hey guys, don’t you think this horn part is a bit much?” or “isn’t the phrase ‘semen stains the mountaintops’ a bit too jarring and weird for a mass audience?”  It is an album that is completely unconcerned with what other people think about it.  It’s almost as if Mangum was inviting snarky jackasses like me to make fun of him because he knew, either due to an incredible amount of confidence or pure insanity (or both), that it would work.

Musically, “Aeroplane” is extremely original, with few real precedents when it comes to its combination of orchestral arrangements and fuzzed out, lo-fi production.  The instrumentation is also bizarre, and Mangum’s use of accordions, horns, and other instruments gives the album a distinct timeless quality.  While other albums on this list will have a distinct “90’s” sound, I find that “Aeroplane” sounds like it could have existed in pretty much any era of music.  It isn’t tied down by any trends that were happening at the time —  it just kind of exists.

Mangum’s lyrics are also a signature, replacing typical simple rock lyrics with long, wordy passages that read more like prose.  He also is able to craft a lot of uncomfortable imagery, like on the eight minute epic “Oh Comely” which has lines like “your father made fetuses with flesh-licking ladies”, or on “Two-Headed Boy” when Mangum sings “and they’ll be placing fingers through the notches of your spine”.  There’s also a direct reference to Anne Frank on “Oh Comely”, as Mangum wails “I wish I could save her in some sort of time machine.”  It’s one of those moments that could be really corny, but Mangum is blessed with the gift of making lyrics like those sound like they’re coming straight from the bottom of his soul.  That ability is able to make you feel that he sincerely cares about Anne Frank’s plight and isn’t just doing a glorified middle school writing assignment.

The highlight of the album for me is “Holland, 1945”, which is also the most straight-forward rock/pop song.  The fast tempo and his typically wordy lyrics give Mangum’s vocals a rushed feel, as if he’s trying to cram every thought he has into the roughly three minutes of song he has to work with.  It’s a feeling of wild, overstuffed imagination that permeates the album.  It also is probably the song that is most directly about Anne Frank — about how  “they buried her alive/one evening, 1945/with just her sister at her side.”  “Holland, 1945” is sophisticated, legitimately catchy, and extremely moving.  I think it stands up as one of the greatest indie rock songs of all time.  If you don’t like it, there’s a very realistic chance that I hate you.

While the Anne Frank connection is well known, “Aeroplane” remains a very mysterious album, thanks to Mangum’s interpretive lyrics.  It’s difficult to tell which parts of the album are about Frank, which are intensely personal, or whether the entire thing is a combination of both.  The album gains further mystique due to Mangum’s life since the album:  As “Aeroplane” has continued to garner acclaim and influence bands over the years, the man responsible for it has mostly been silent, instead content to play the occasional unannounced acoustic live set or contribute on albums made by friends.  Only recently has Mangum re-emerged, announcing a solo tour and curating an All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival this year.

All of this makes it easy to see why “Aeroplane” is held in such high esteem by indie music fans.  It’s a true “indie” album, in the sense that it has its own ideas and doesn’t seem to care about any trends.  And Mangum himself is one of the most intriguing figures in the history of indie rock, a reclusive maybe-genius whose motivations for making it remain largely unknown.  While “Aeroplane” has been one of the most influential indie albums ever, no artist has been able to replicate its conceptual nature, the sophisticated lyrics, the grand arrangements, and the emotional honesty (although The Decemberists have tried really, really hard).  Many bands have taken bits and pieces of it; none have come close to it as a whole.

“Aeroplane” is the kind of album that I think unites people — almost all indie fans, regardless of what they typically listen to, seem to have some love for it.  Listening to it, I am always in awe of its singularity, how it seems so detached from all other music, and how fearlessly emotional it is.  It has alternately moved and baffled listeners for over a decade now, and seems like it will only continue to grow in popularity and acclaim as time goes on.