Volumes upon volumes have been written about Nirvana over the past two decades—their effect on underground rock, pop music and eventually pop culture—and especially on enigmatic frontman Kurt Cobain, his childhood, the meaning of his lyrics and journals, his influences, shoe size, favorite candy bar, right down to retracing the last 48 hours of his life. Sometimes it feels as though the band’s music can get lost in the minutiae.
That seems especially true of Nirvana’s third and final studio album, In Utero, a record that understandably remains obscured by the shadow of 1991’s Nevermind, as well as the band’s own legend. Grunge would become damn-near as popular as disco 15 years before, as labels gobbled up watered-down versions as fast as they could, and established rock bands scurried to make darker, heavier, “grungier” records. Not to mention Nevermind—along with Metallica’s Black Album—simultaneously made it OK for jocks and moms to listen to punk rock and metal. It turned into Bizarro World for those who had been listening to underground music for years.
In Utero was, of course, an ideological reaction to all of that—from the choice of Big Black’s Steve Albini to produce, to the album’s imagery and recurring themes. And it was effective, and at times effectively ham-fisted in its delivery. But viewed as a singular artistic vision, In Utero is easily Nirvana’s best work.
Cobain committed suicide seven months after the album’s release. An overdose on prescription drugs and alcohol in Italy on March 3, 1994—which left him in a coma, one month before his death—proved to be the writing on the wall. Cobain’s death, in a way, diminished what the band had accomplished on In Utero. It was seen more as Nirvana’s final record, the final document of a band that changed the world, than something to be listened to and enjoyed.
Twenty years has a way of making you re-evaluate things. Important things, as well as music. I was 20 when I purchased In Utero in September of 1993. Listening to it now I still get goosebumps, but for different reasons. Instead of trying to decipher the meanings behind Cobain’s lyrics, I’m more preoccupied with the way he sings and screams them. And rather than getting caught up in the record’s thematic “fuck you” to Cobain’s unwanted, but deeply desired success, I find myself getting completely lost in the tangle of guitars helping to deliver that message.
In Utero is a fantastic guitar album. Along with 1989’s Bleach, it’s full of deceptively nimble guitar work and well-timed noise bombs (I’m always surprised when people gripe about Cobain’s name appearing on “Best Guitarist” lists). Look no further than opener “Serve the Servants,” which explodes on a sour note, presumably meant to immediately let listeners know that this thing would not smell like Teen Spirit. It’s one of the best songs on the album, with a wiry riff and an even squigglier solo. From there you get the heavy pop of “Very Ape” and the rusty hook of “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle.” More noteworthy are songs like “Scentless Apprentice,” “Milk It” and “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” which forego Cobain’s proclivity for Knack power pop, and dig deeper into the darker, less tuneful noise of Sonic Youth and Saccharine Trust. “Milk It” is especially rigid and torched, and it still makes you wonder if this was the sound of future Nirvana albums that were never to be.
That’s tempered by “Dumb” and “All Apologies,” two songs that had been kicking around a few years, that happen to also be Cobain’s poppiest and most tender. Musically “Dumb” comes as close to Beatlesque (or maybe Plastic Ono Band) as he’d gotten since “About a Girl.” And the lyric, “My heart is broke, but I have some glue/help me inhale, and mend it with you,” typifies Cobain’s ability to come off both sickly and sweet. The guitar melody on “All Apologies” is his most tranquil and most memorable. On the studio release that hook sits front and center, although on the demo version it lurks underneath bright strums that sound straight out of the Paisley Underground.
In fact, the In Utero demos are the real highlight of this 20th anniversary edition: Krist Novoselic’s fuzz bass on “Pennyroyal Tea” and “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter.” Dave Grohl sounding a little nervous as he gets ready to sing his very first Nirvana contribution “Marigold.” The noisy six-minute “Jam Demo.” They’re raw, fun little bits, which could easily have worked as a final product, if that final product wasn’t for a major label.
The fact that In Utero came out on a major label seems foreign now. And as much as people have bitched about the final mixes, and the extra tinkering from R.E.M. producer Scott Litt on the singles “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies,” In Utero remains very much a nervy and guttural record. Those songs’ original Albini mixes included here aren’t much different. The same could be said for Albini’s 2013 remix of In Utero, which does nothing to improve on the original.
In Utero is not a flawless album. The thudding “Tourette’s” could have easily remained on the cutting-room floor. And even Cobain referred to the main riff to “Scentless Apprentice” (which Grohl had come up with) as “boneheaded.” But those songs play supporting roles, reinforcing the idea that this is supposed to be an ugly record.
The song that best encapsulates In Utero isn’t one of the difficult-sounding deep cuts, but actually the record’s first single. “Heart-Shaped Box”—along with its Anton Corbijn-directed video—is the clearest snapshot of Cobain’s vision (Corbijn said most of the concepts came directly from Cobain). It’s dark. Supremely eerie. And with that it still manages an earworm of a chorus. Lyrically it captures Cobain’s cynicism and his humor, along with his fascination with disease, human anatomy and the tug between love and heartbrokenness. It was the only video the band would make for the album, which makes it an even more sad and telling document.
Included in Cobain’s vision, of course, was the desire to distance himself and the band from the massive success they’d acquired two years earlier. Numbers-wise it worked—In Utero sold about a third of what Nevermind did in the U.S. What he didn’t foresee was that a musical explosion of this magnitude would never happen again.
The past 20 years have been kind to In Utero, even as opinions on Nirvana continue to be divided. And while—with the exception of a few nuggets—this 20th anniversary edition doesn’t bring much to the legacy of In Utero, it does give us an opportunity to revisit an album that still sounds as good today as it did in 1993. And without all the excess noise about what it all means, we can focus more on the music. Which is what Kurt Cobain wanted all along.