* * * 1/2
Rarely has a still-incubating record received so many unsolicited sonograms in its fetal state as "In Utero," Nirvana's follow-up to its breakthrough "Nevermind." Some early advance buzz had it that the upcoming album was so cacophonously raw, uncommercial and even unreleasable that it might go down in history as a heroic act of self-sabotage. Then the pendulum swung, and the still-unreleased record began to be pronounced in hipper quarters an unqualified masterpiece.
Following all this speculation, the actual birth risks seeming anti-climactic. Moderation will inevitably prevail when the post-buzz dust settles: The kid isn't perfect or a mutant. What the band has delivered, though, is another brashly satisfying punk broadside that definitely doesn't have the good looks of its predecessor but does have all the nervy, bawling, slap-happy spunk an attendant cigar-smoker could hope for.
"Teen-age Angst has paid off well / Now I'm bored and old," Kurt Cobain sings in the album's soon-to-be-famous first lines. If you'd guess from that opening that Cobain is going to spend a lot of the record commenting sarcastically on the success and attention he's enjoyed ( not ) in the last couple of years, you'd be positively prescient.
He's still bitter over the very public rumormongering about his and wife Courtney Love's physical state at the time of the birth of their child last year; more than once, he uses witch-hunt metaphors.
"In her false witness, we hope you're still with us, to see if they float or drown," he sings amusedly in "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle," which is of course as much about you-know-who as about the publicly crucified title actress of renown.
Elsewhere, the singer, who's been beset with stomach problems, makes a pointed drug reference: "I'm on warm milk and laxatives / Cherry-flavored antacids."
It's a big trap for some artists to spend the follow-up to their huge success carping about that success. But Cobain needs some fuel for his fire, and if he finds it in that this time, it's not such a problem.
He's still more universally, symbolically oblique than embarrassingly confessional, and is still more likely to drown himself in Costello-like punmenship than overly autobiographical guts-spilling.
The guts come more in Cobain's delivery--which still tends toward a euphoric, utterly throat-wrenching inarticulate howl, alternating with a pretty, affectless croon for good, dynamic measure. Catchy hooks are a lot fewer and farther-between here than on "Nevermind," to be sure, but there's still a good amount of Buzzcocks-meets-Replacements flavor amid the thrash and din.
The pop-suppressing presence of gadfly/irritant Steve Albini as "recorder" (formerly producer) hasn't turned this into an atonal mess by any means.
Cobain's talent isn't totally matured, but in the best moments here he's able to set aside his ironicism and find real emotions. "I miss the comfort in being sad" is a candid assessment of hardened cynicism, while his finding that what other people see as stupid naivete may be his own simple contentment--in "Dumb," the album's one "ballad"--is the sweetest summation of the self-reliance that drives his music.
New albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).