Gillian G. Gaar is quite clearly encyclopaedic about Nirvana, and In Utero includes a massive amount of detailed information without resorting to infodumps. It has lightest authorial touch of the books I’ve read to date - no comment on why this album or her own relationship with the music, and most opinions expressed are mostly through others’ words. Gaar focuses on the making of the album and the story is told by those involved with it, with the author well behind the curtain.
The introduction is a brief look at Nirvana’s circumstances at the start of the album’s sessions (and this is, admirably, about as close we get to the tabloidy aspects of Cobain’s life during the making of the album), and then a chapter on non-album track ‘Sappy’ gives a sense of Nirvana’s writing and recording process. From there, straight into the sessions that led to the album’s tracks: Seattle in 1991 (Music Source studio), Seattle in 1992 (Word of Mouth studio), Brazil (1993), the album sessions with Steve Albini (1993). Fluidly, each track’s history comes through, including inspiration or lyrical correspondences with real life, changes in instrumentation, notable aspects of the recording or debates that arose. The descriptions of the songs and the band’s sound are steady and informed, such as noting the vocal qualities Cobain uses on ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ in contrast to the band’s other output.
The difficult points in the album’s story - the label’s dissatisfaction with the Albini recordings and the debate around remixing, and then the controversies about imagery and song names on the album cover and packaging - are balanced, somehow even managing to let Albini (who was interviewed for the book) come across as both Steve Albini and also someone quite gracious. The album art and the video for ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ are both described in some detail, the process and the reception.
It’s such a complete book that it feels unfair to fault it for lack of a spark, and yet it’s quite flat throughout. I appreciate that Gaar was fully, fully aware of the extent of writing on Nirvana (and, among other projects, she worked as consultant on the With the Lights Out box set), and so perhaps that came with pressure to avoid redundancy, but there’s so much emotion involved with how people hear(d) Nirvana and it’s strange that that’s nowhere here. Gaar’s writing style is affable and so well-informed, and a bit more passion or character would have made this one extraordinary.