At the time of its release in 1993, Nirvana's final studio album, "In Utero," was so hotly anticipated that controversies arose before most people had even heard it. As a successor to a bajillion-selling behemoth ('91's "Nevermind," in case you've been under a very large rock for the last 20 years), how could it not be? Of course, once the album hit stores, and especially since Kurt Cobain's suicide, none of the backstory seemed to matter. Now, more than a decade later, author Gillian G. Gaar (apparently, a true "G") revisits the album that confirmed that Nirvana was a serious rock band and not some grunge-pop poseurs (and I can't tell you how many times I've had to defend my Nirvana t-shirt to passers by back in the day!).
This short book, one of Continuum Publishing's 33 1/3 series of books about classic pop music albums, focuses mainly on known facts. Therefore, many chapters detail the varied recording sessions that eventually resulted in the finished album. For instance, in the first chapter, Gaar covers the history of the song "Sappy," the best song the band wrote that never made it onto a proper album. We find out about the musical and lyrical changes the song had over the years. Unfortunately, Gaar doesn't print most of the lyrics from any version, so it's hard to appreciate these changes, much less interpret them. This sets up a pattern for the rest of the book, so mostly we get a string of dates and studios with relatively little context.
Also absent are details about the state of Cobain's physical and mental health during the "In Utero" sessions. Of course, based on the lyrics he wrote (we learn that Cobain would wait until the day of the vocal recording to finish them), it couldn't have been very good. These questions go beyond idle gossip even for fans, so it would've been good of Gaar to include that. Of course, this kind of material is covered tastefully in other books (most notably Charles R. Cross' Cobain bio, Heavier than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain), so some further reading may be required.
What Gaar does have, and in spades, is access. She was a project consultant on the Nirvana box set "With the Lights Out" (it gets referenced almost too much for my taste), and therefore some major players granted interviews. These include surviving band members Krist Noveselic and Dave Grohl, and the album's producer, Steve Albini. The notoriously acerbic Albini is rather restrained here, heaping praise on the band and holding back his feelings about DGC Records. One of the biggest controversies surrounding the album were press reports that the label felt the harsh, noisy album was "unreleasable." Nobody in the book seems to know if this was actually the case, and the company executives either weren't interviewed or still won't talk. As it turns out, the finished album was considered a triumph of artistic integrity, even with the remixing on a couple of tracks by R.E.M. producer Scott Litt.
Still, the book provides a fascinating snapshot of the band's creative development. It's definitely reccommended for Nirvana fans, as well as to all kinds of music obsessives. Even though some questions remain, this is a satisfying, if brief, read.