Has there ever been a rock star more obsessed with pregnancy, birth and babies than Kurt Cobain? Even the most passing acquaintance with Nevermind, Nirvana's second album, answers that question. The infamous front cover depicting a naked baby swimming after a dollar bill caused a fuss in America - not for its cute portrait of capitalist seduction, but because it showed the new-born's penis.
Cobain's lyrics too were filled with musings on our origins. Infancy provided Cobain with an image of innocence's perfect but all-too-temporary dominion. Take the lightly cynical opening of Drain You: 'One baby to another says/I'm lucky to have met you/I don't care what you think/Unless it's about me.'
Cobain's journals, published in 2002, suggested this imagery wasn't so much metaphorical as obsessive: the Robert Crumb-esque comic strip Mr Moustache depicts a foetus bursting from its mother's womb to murder its macho father. Aged seven when his parents divorced, Cobain was fixated on childhood as a place of comfort and impending horror.
As its title suggests, In Utero, Nirvana's glorious but harrowing third and final album, threw all these associations into a melting pot. Meaning 'embryonic state' (perhaps a nod to the primitive aggression of the music within), In Utero is at times sweetly melodic (Heart-Shaped Box, All Apologies, Dumb), furiously discordant (Milk It, Tourette's, Scentless Apprentice) and occasionally both at the same time: Rape Me, Very Ape.
Images from childhood abound. Quoting Jane's Addiction, Serve the Servant wails: 'I tried hard to have a father/But instead I had a dad.' On In Utero, Cobain's fragile faith in pure innocence has been eroded. Instead he sees guilt, decay and death waiting to happen. This is expressed with skin-crawling concision on Scentless Apprentice, which was inspired by Patrick Suskind's novel, Perfume: 'Every wet nurse refused to feed him/Electrolytes smell like semen.' Sex, birth and maternal rejection in two lines: Cobain had clearly been supplementing Suskind with plenty of William Burroughs.
The twisted love song Heart-Shaped Box suggests that love for his baby daughter, Frances, doubles as a thing of poignant pain: 'Cut myself on angel's hair and baby's breath.' Birth and death are now all but synonymous in Cobain's imagination: 'Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back.' One thinks (perhaps pretentiously) of Samuel Beckett's conflation of birth and death in Waiting for Godot: 'They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.'It is reductive to read In Utero as merely a baroque suicide note. But its bleak beauty does hint at how Cobain's universe was contracting into a kind of fatal (or foetal) self-attention: 'I am my own parasite/I don't need a host to live/We feed off of each other' (Milk It).
We will never know exactly why Cobain chose to end his life only 27 years after it began. Despair? Selfishness? Drugs? Fame? In idealistic mood, I think of Captain Beefheart's explanation for his reclusiveness: he lost touch with the world because the world touched too hard.