Monday, October 22, 2018

Certain Songs #1350: Nirvana – “Dumb” | Medialoper

Album: In Utero
Year: 1993

To say that the run-up to In Utero was tumultuous would be an insult to the concept of tumult. Nirvana was caught in between having to follow an massive and unexpected hit record with yet another hit record and the nagging feeling that having another hit record was the worst possible thing that could possibly happen.

So naturally, coming from the punk rock side of things, where any kind of success was frowned upon, they went with Steve Albini to record In Utero, knowing that the supersonic sheen that Butch Vig & Andy Wallace gave Nevermind would be nowhere to be found. In addition, Cobain wrote a bunch of songs that weren’t nearly as melodic, delving into the more abrasive side of his songwriting, and doubling down on his personal punk rock bona fides.

The result was a fascinating, glorious mess, balancing some of Cobain’s most beautiful melodies with abrasiveness designed to piss off — or at least shoo away — some of the more mainstream-oriented people who dug songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “In Bloom” when they showed up on the radio. As far as I was concerned, I was always going to gravitate towards the ones with the prettier melodies, regardless of how cool it was to hear Kurt shred his voice on “Tourette’s” or play with fucked-up guitar tones on “Very Ape.”

So I gravitated towards a song like “Dumb,” the quietest thing on the album, but one that’s never left my head a quarter-century later.

I’m not like them
But I can pretend
The sun is gone
But I have a light
The day is done
But I’m having fun
I think I’m dumb

That opening verse led directly into the gut-punch of the chorus, where he equates bliss with stupidity.

Or maybe just happy
Think I’m just happy
Think I’m just happy
Think I’m just happy

With Dave Grohl completely underplaying even on the chorus — substituting a double tom hit for every other snare beat — and swirling cello by Kera Schaley, “Dumb” felt like a new direction for Nirvana: a different level of sophistication without sacrificing a single iota of the immediacy that the more abrasive songs on In Utero trumpeted with their noise.

Had there been a fourth Nirvana album, I think there would have been more songs like “Dumb,” in the same way that songs like “Unsatisfied” and “16 Blue” showed off the relative sophistication Paul Westerberg would start applying to his songwriting. The difference, of course, was that Kurt was both Paul Westerberg and Bob Stinson.

In any event, at the end, he chants “I think I’m dumb” with Dave Grohl doing the high harmonies, and it is sad and sublime.


“Dumb” performed live at Reading, 1992

“Dumb” performed live on MTV Unplugged, 1993

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