Alternative rock lives, self-doubt intact

Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot on 90s alternative rock nostalgia and how it holds up today. (Posted: Sept. 13, 2013)

“Alternative rock,” a music-industry term that encapsulated the ‘90s rise of bands such as Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails, never really went away. In some ways, it’s as lucrative as ever, and still getting humorously zinged by Mudhoney, the Stooges-loving rabble rousers who helped birth the Seattle music scene from that era.

“I like it small,” singer Mark Arm declares, in a typically self-deprecating new song on Mudhoney’s first studio album in five years, “Vanishing Point” (Sub Pop). The music is a wicked blast of garage rock, and the video – which appears to have been shot on a $25 budget, most of which went toward inflatable dolls – works as a sardonic commentary on Nirvana’s iconic if equally low-rent 1991 video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

The Nirvana hit marked the unofficial birthplace of alternative rock – the wave of music inspired by punk and postpunk that crashed the pop charts for a few years in the early ‘90s. The era included bands and artists who at least paid lip service to the idea that they were marginalized outsiders (some even actually were). But they spoke loudly to a generation that felt left out, and bands such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, the Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, the Offspring and Primus ended up playing arenas and selling millions of albums. Even low-fi artists such as Beck, Pavement, Guided By Voices and Liz Phair became stars.

Now, many of them are back with new music or repackaged versions of the albums that shaped their legacies. Nirvana and the Pumpkins are in the midst of a series of box-set releases celebrating their ‘90s heyday. Pearl Jam has a similar archival dig under way, but has also scheduled a new album, “Lightning Bolt,” for release in October. Soundgarden returned last November with their first album of new material in more than a decade, “King Animal” (Seven Four/Republic). And after launching a “farewell” tour in 2009, Trent Reznor resurrected Nine Inch Nails for the recent comeback album, “Hesitation Marks” (Columbia). Demand for these bands never really went away; their names have become “brands” beloved by an audience that is now in its thirties and forties and willing to pay big money to see them.

Nirvana’s “In Utero: 20th Anniversary Deluxe Reissue” (Geffen), due out Sept. 24, revisits the Seattle trio’s third studio album, the 1993 follow-up to the 30-million-selling “Nevermind.” “In Utero” was a pricklier album than its predecessor. Recorded by Steve Albini in two weeks, it represents a clearer picture of how singer Kurt Cobain tried to integrate two contradictory impulses: punk mayhem and bubblegum-pop melody. Whereas “Nevermind” smoothed the rough edges, “In Utero” underlined them. The album presents the band at extremes: vulnerable and chaotic. It was in many ways an affirmation of the ‘70s and ‘80s underground and the notion that guitar-bass-drums rock ‘n’ roll still could inspire and upend. 

Unfortunately, that is not the case with the overstuffed 70-track “In Utero” box set, which adds little in the way of revelatory new material that might justify its hefty $100-plus price tag. As souvenir items go, it’s a nice reminder of what once was. But the idea all along was that “alternative” was an engine for change, that Rock Inc. was being shoved out the door while bands like the Jesus Lizard, the Melvins, Sonic Youth, the Flaming Lips and Ween signed major-label deals and ransacked the palace. It didn’t quite work out that way. Within a few years, the movement had become a commodity, spawning a festival (Lollapalooza), a commercial radio format and a bevy of sound-alikes on the charts (Bush, Seven Mary Three, Stone Temple Pilots).

“In Utero” saw it coming. Cobain understood how quickly things would come undone as the cash started to flow. “I am my own parasite,” he barked on the scorched-earth “Milk It.” The album’s second half is a series of noisy screeds, finally descending on the heart-breaking “All Apologies.”

“What else should I be? … What else could I say? … What else should I write,” Cobain sang, as if interrogating himself about what it all meant and whether it was worth it. His music was part of a soundtrack made largely by and for the 82 million Americans born between 1965 and 1984, the so-called “Generation X” as defined in Douglas Coupland's 1991 novel, “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture."

This was the generation that came of age after the mostly prosperous, post-World War II Baby Boomers. A segment of this community – including Cobain, Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder -- found its voice on the 7-inch singles available only at independent record stores and heard only on college radio stations, a world in which Husker Du and the Melvins mattered as much or more than huge ‘80s hitmakers such as Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen.

Their music questioned everything, including itself. That’s why “All Apologies” still resonates. On the latest Pearl Jam single, “Mind Your Manners,” Vedder also grapples with big questions – of faith, doubt and the purpose of rebellion. He does it over a scratchy guitar riff and furious drum volleys that hold up well next to the music Pearl Jam made during its ‘90s heyday.

On Nine Inch Nails’ “Hesitation Marks,” Reznor is loaded with uncertainty, almost to the point of inertia. Cobain and many of his peers were rock-music fans who understood the pitfalls of stardom and nostalgia and how that could undermine everything they valued. Reznor, who used keyboards and computers to fashion some of the most aggressive rock music ever made in the early ‘90s, figured out how to sound just as disturbing in the quieter terrain of his 1999 masterpiece, “The Fragile.” After that creative high point, what was left for him to do?

“Hesitation Marks” wrestles with how to reconcile Reznor’s corrosive sound and attitude with where he is now: a well-rewarded, middle-age rock star with a wife and family. “Everything I say has come before … I am never certain anymore/I am just a shadow of a shadow of a shadow,” he sings.

Cobain, Vedder, Reznor and many of their peers were rock stars who had swagger, but were always self-conscious about it. They were their era’s answer to a lineage that went back to the Beatles and Elvis Presley, but was shaded by punk-rock guilt and skepticism. To quote the wise men in Mudhoney, who never climbed as high as many of the alternative bands they influenced, on “I Like it Small”: “Limited appeal! … Dingy basements! … No expectations!” Kurt Cobain felt exactly the same way in 1989, and it ticked him off. Then everything changed.

Cobain became a bigger deal than he ever could’ve imagined. Even after he died, Nirvana just kept on selling: far more Nirvana music has been released after the singer killed himself in 1994 than in the band’s relatively brief lifetime. No wonder that for nearly every Gen X hero of the ‘90s, Cobain’s flippantly acerbic opening line on “In Utero” must sound prophetic: “Teenage angst has paid off well.”

greg@gregkot.com   


 

 

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