A Deep Dive Into Nirvana’s ‘All Apologies’

    Few melodic lines in the history of popular music are as omnipresent as that of Nirvana’s 1993 single ‘All Apologies’. Though, to this day, the opening riffs of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ or ‘Come As You Are’ are arguably more ubiquitous in terms of radio play, ‘All Apologies’ has an altogether different quality about it, a kind of mystical languor that seeks to permanently etch itself into the back of your brain. Maybe that’s just me, but I can’t be the only one who finds himself humming that song on an irregular but oddly constant basis – that almost spectral pervasiveness is practically embedded into its musical DNA, inhabiting some sort of shared space in our collective conscience. Dave Grohl said of the song in a 2005 interview with Harp: “I remember hearing it and thinking, ‘God, this guy has such a beautiful sense of melody, I can’t believe he’s screaming all the time.'”

    Perhaps music theory alone can adequately explain why the song is so hauntingly potent – Kurt Cobain did in fact have an unlikely penchant for pop melodies, a reflection of some of the less-than-apparent mainstream influences that permeate his music. But another seemingly no less viable theory is that Cobain infused part of his soul into the song, which would explain its placement as the 12th and final track on the band’s last studio effort, In Utero. Though the popular narrative that the album served as a kind of rock n’ roll suicide has since been challenged by critics who were able to separate Cobain’s music from its mournful context by pointing to the raw vitality of the album’s sound, it’s still difficult to make that same argument for ‘All Apologies’, an eerily poignant masterpiece that’s driven by an all-consuming sense of resignation and existential ennui. Despite being coated in layers of sarcasm, it seems impossible not to view the apologetic tone of lyrics like “everything’s my fault” and “I’ll take all the blame” as a premonition of Cobain’s suicide.

    But there’s a lot to unpack behind the song’s deceptively simple formula. In a more overt manner, ‘All Apologies’ presents itself partly as a sardonic response to Cobain’s newfound fame and the scrutiny that came with it – which, of course, is often seen as shaping the conditions that led to his death. Accompanied by a listlessly upbeat melody, Cobain issues a fake apology to all those who have formed multiple, sometimes conflicting expectations of him. He opens the song with the rhetorical question “What else should I be?” before rhyming “What else could I say?” with the infamous “Everyone is gay”, mocking not just those who were quick to take offense at his every word, but also those who praised it as deeply profound and somehow revelatory. Both were guilty of the same crime: building a false perception of him based on some narrative he wasn’t in control of, but could at least toy with in the form of a pointedly silly song.

    As reasonable as that interpretation may sound, the history of the song also renders it a somewhat implausible one. ‘All Apologies’ was reportedly first written as early as 1990 and recorded for the first time by Craig Montgomery at Music Source Studios in Seattle, Washington on January 1st, 1991, seven months before Nevermind was even released, and a whole year before Cobain and Courtney Love were married. And though the lyrics were indeed quite different, the lines that are now seen as referring to his fame and his tumultuous marriage were still there – either he was, as many of his most ardent followers would have it, capable of magically predicting the future, or that wasn’t at all the intended meaning. As far as we know, Cobain didn’t even want the song to sound ominous, but genuinely calm – “peaceful, happy, comfort – just happy happiness” was how he described it to Michael Azerrad in the 1993 biography Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. He dedicated the song to Courtney Love and their daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, explaining that “the words don’t really fit in relation to us… the feeling does, but not the lyrics.”

    Of course, it’s entirely possible that the song inadvertently took on a new meaning as the band’s popularity began to skyrocket, which can be traced in the many mutations that appeared throughout its lifetime. That first demo, which appeared on the album’s 20th-anniversary reissue, is an acoustic cut that takes inspiration from the Beatles at their most cheerful, aptly described by Pitchfork’s Stuart Berman as “transmuting the song’s overarching sense of resignation into bright-eyed, fresh-start optimism.” The lyrics are even more simplistic than those that appear in the final version, with Cobain singing: “You stole things from me/ All apologies/ I stole things from you/ All of us stand accused”. Cobain might be pointing the finger at a specific person here, but he’s willing to happily move on from what seems to be a relatively petty dispute. Even what has now become one of the song’s defining lines sounds more like “married/ married” – the dark cynicism of the “married/buried” equation has yet to settle in. “All in all is all we are”, the Buddhist mantra that closes off the song and encapsulates so much of the band’s philosophy, is also notably absent – all in all, it’s just an unironically jolly tune.

    Another demo, this time recorded by Cobain himself at his residence at an unknown date, is more reminiscent of the version we remember today, though naturally much more intimate. While he sounds more conflicted than in the other demo (“I don’t want to fight,” he declares on the first verse, instead of “I don’t have the right”), it’s more of an internal conflict this time; the song no longer addresses a specific you, but rather steers toward personal self-reflection. But it also hasn’t yet evolved into the kind of meta-commentary on his public image that the song would later become: “What else could I be?” he sings instead of the more stinging “What else should I be?” The only instance where he doesn’t use the first person is in the song’s outro, where he references that deeply spiritual quote about how all things in the universe are connected – which should serve to highlight the meaningfulness of his own existence but instead seems to hint at an overwhelming feeling of insignificance and alienation (it’s not a coincidence that the line is often heard as “All alone is all we are”). This doesn’t necessarily imply that it was an early sign of suicidal ideation – any such suggestion is probably little more than an attempt to fit the song’s lyrics into some media narrative surrounding Cobain’s death. But when you suddenly find yourself being idolized by millions of people around the world, it probably helps to be reminded that, in the grand scheme of things, you’re no more important than an ant.

    ‘All Apologies’ is often remembered as a song that started out as an electric composition before being immortalized on MTV Unplugged, but it wasn’t performed as an electric track until its first live performance at the Wolverhampton Civic Hall in England on November 6, 1991. What’s interesting about this performance is that not only does Cobain switch up the final line to the more accurate “all is one and one is all”, but he also sounds uncomfortable with that universal truth, screaming it out louder than in any other version. If you’re looking for a more polished live recording that also sounds like actually it’s coming from a grunge band, though, 1992’s Live at Reading offers just that, ramping up the intensity while also displaying more of that sense of restraint that would come to define the track. Of all the versions covered so far, it sounds the closest to the studio one, which was recorded in February of 1993 with the legendary Steve Albini at Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota.

    Still tentatively titled ‘La La La’ (which, oddly enough, sounds exactly like what someone who isn’t paying serious attention to the lyrics – basically anyone who would come to stumble upon it on the radio – would hear during the song’s outro), the studio version features the important addition of the cello, which is now as strongly associated with the track as that guitar melody. Played by Kera Schaley, its looming background presence is largely responsible for the track’s eerie atmosphere, which is what transcends it to a whole new level. But the studio version that appeared on the original In Utero didn’t sound as Albini intended it to. Alongside ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and ‘Pennyroyal Tea’, ‘All Apologies’ was handed to R.E.M. producer Scott Litt to create a cleaner, more radio-friendly version that, in the words of bassist Krist Novoselic, would serve as a “gateway” to the album’s more alternative sound. In a 1993 interview with Jon Savage, Cobain said the issue was actually that “the vocals weren’t loud enough … In every Albini mix I’ve ever heard, the vocals are always too quiet. That’s just the way he likes things, and he’s a real difficult person to persuade otherwise.” Listening to the original mix, which appeared on the album’s 20th-anniversary reissue, the vocals are indeed drowned out in a way that almost unintentionally fits the theme of the song, Cobain’s pained vocals struggling to rise above the chaos of distortion and that monstrous snare kick. But in every other way, the differences are almost indecipherable, a testament to the amount of scrutiny the band was constantly subjected to from their label.

    The cover art for the ‘All Apologies/ Rape Me’ single.

    The song was released as a double A-side single alongside the much more controversial ‘Rape Me’ on December 6, 1993, boosting sales of In Utero, which was released two months earlier. For the cover of the single, Cobain’s only instruction to art director Robert Fisher was that he wanted “something with seahorses”. Though no one knows exactly why he chose that imagery, it’s interesting to note that during those early 1991 live performances, he opened the song with “Living in the sea” (coupled with “What else can I do/ I’m in love with you”). There’s also the line “aqua seafoam shame”, which could be interpreted in a number of ways. It could just be an instance of absurdist wordplay – Cobain, though sometimes viewed as a weak lyricist, had a penchant for abstract, sometimes meaningless poetry; alternatively, it could be a reference to his heroin use, especially alongside the line “find my nest of salt”, though that seems a bit of a stretch; and finally, it could allude to the feelings of self-loathing Cobain was experiencing following the success of Nevermind, given the symbolism of the album’s iconic cover. Though this kind of lyrical dissection is exactly what Cobain would have despised, there’s no denying that there’s at least some significance to the motif of underwater imagery recurring throughout Nirvana’s work.

    A sketch of a suggested tour T-shirt, from Kurt Cobain’s Journals.

    Though it’s tempting to relate Cobain’s choice of a seahorse for the single’s cover art to the ancient belief, prevalent among the Phoenicians and Etruscans, that hippocampi accompanied the dead on their journey into the afterlife, it’s much more likely that it’s just another manifestation of Cobain’s long-standing fascination with seahorses, particularly pregnant seahorses. “He was really into the whole aspect that males got to carry their young,” Fisher said, a fact further evidenced by his original artwork as well as the sketches that appeared in his Journals (which also featured a proposed video idea for ‘Rape Me’ that included scenes of seahorses as well as a man preparing himself for a gynecological exam). This also ties into the album’s title, as the seahorse’s ability to provide a womb for the embryo is a case of what is scientifically known as in utero pateris. Of course, none of this explains exactly why Cobain was so obsessed with seahorses, but given that he dedicated the song to his daughter, who was born in August of 1992, one could reasonably speculate that it was a projection of his newly emergent paternal instincts, as well as his lifelong disdain for fixed gender roles. But the same year that Cobain told Spin that the lyrics on In Utero were “more focused, they’re almost built on themes”, he also told Q that the abundance of childbirth and infant imagery had nothing to do with his newfound fatherhood. At the end of the day, it’s probably wisest to stick with what he said in an interview with Frédéric Brébant (speaking of ‘Teen Spirit’): “Whatever you want to make out of it. It’s up to you. It’s your crossword puzzle.”

    ‘All Apologies’ wouldn’t have found the same commercial success were it not for MTV Unplugged, nor would it have the same kind of resonance. Touted by many as the definitive version of the song, it’s far more than just a palatable acoustic rendition – it’s as chillingly intimate as that home demo, but much more stately and refined in its beauty, Cobain’s rough-hewn vocals accompanied by Dave Grohl’s unusually hushed drums and the unearthly grandeur of the cello. It’s a stunning testament to just how perfectly precise and composed Cobain could be in his delivery, which only serves to amplify the emotional tensions boiling underneath the song’s calm veneer. Beyond proving the band’s ability to diversify their sound more successfully than any of their peers, Cobain’s stark sincerity also paints the song in a different light, putting lie to the notion that it was just a tongue-in-cheek joke song. Within Unplugged’s sombre setting, the song’s hummed final mantra, aptly described by Spin’s Kyle McGovern as “an epitaph equal parts puzzling, comforting, and devastating”, also takes on more weight – just as it seems to stretch on forever.

    ‘All Apologies’ was performed for the last time by Cobain on March 1st, 1994 at the Terminal Einz in Munich, Germany, but in April of 2014, Nirvana’s surviving members – Novoselic, Grohl, and Pat Smear – performed the song with none other than Lorde on lead vocals for the band’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The performance itself was more than satisfactory, but its power was mostly symbolic – for one thing, it featured rock icons Annie Clark, Kim Gordon and Joan Jett, which could be seen as a nod to Cobain’s embrace of feminism as well as his close allyship with the riot grrl movement. And though choosing a rising pop star to sing a Nirvana song might have seemed like a questionable idea at first, the decision highlighted just how poppy the song really was. But there’s also a much more obvious and meaningful parallel – much like Cobain, Lorde has been repeatedly described as ‘the voice of a generation’, a characterization she isn’t particularly fond of. Her music appeals to the masses while also being uniquely alternative – as Grohl said, “There’s something about her that represented or resembled the Nirvana aesthetic.”

    From its inception to the very last time it was performed, though, the song’s melodic line remains a stirring constant, one that seems to occupy some sort of liminal space. Its lullaby-like resonance makes it an unlikely but perfect choice for the Rockabye Baby! series, which reinterprets popular songs into lullabies geared towards babies, and it’s not just because of the strange way the whole concept is connected to the album’s infant imagery. Released as part of the 2006 album Lullaby Renditions of Nirvana and utilized to haunting effect in the excellent 2015 documentary Montage of Heck, the track reveals the true essence of the song when stripped down to its core – more so, in my view, than even the MTV Unplugged performance. A lullaby has the uncanny quality of existing both within and without one’s consciousness, its echo persisting even after it’s lulled you to sleep. ‘All Apologies’ feels timeless not just in the sense that it stands the test of time, but also in the way its phantom-like echo seems to never really fade away, as if escaping time entirely – a true embodiment of the “All in all is all we are” mantra. The song is often remembered as Cobain’s final goodbye, an inescapable premonition of his suicide, but it’s truly a reminder that, in the most uncomfortably real sense, his spirit lives on through his music.

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