Sixteen years after its release and 15 after the death of its primary creator Kurt Cobain, it feels almost pointless to review Nirvana’s studio swan song, In Utero. Almost. The record topped numerous “best of” lists both in its day (Rolling Stone ranked it number one for 1993, while Village Voice gave it the number two slot) and since (Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Spin and others have all factored it into some sort of rock retrospective, both `90s-centric and otherwise). Plenty of words have already been dedicated to its description -- Spin’s Charles Aaron delivered the best, most to-the-point review with “The difference between drums produced by Butch Vig and drums produced by Steve Albini is the difference between watching somebody get punched in the gut and being punched in the gut.” Rolling Stone’s Charles M. Young once wrote that “if you time the album, the dissonance would probably outweigh the melody by a factor of three to one -- but the dissonance is compelling.” And Gillian G. Gaar’s 101-page look at the album for the 33 1/3 series, while at times tedious (she catalogues every In Utero demo ever), covers the album’s creation with a record collector’s obsession.
With so much hooplah about it, why bother reviewing In Utero? Well, for starters, it’s the only essential Nirvana release lacking from the Org’s vaults (feel free to champion/tear down lesser works like Incesticide and From the Muddy Banks of Wishkah, ye hounds of the Internets). Which is a shame, since it’s a pretty good album that tends to get overshadowed by Nevermind’s cultural impact and MTV Unplugged in New York’s honesty, humor, and fragility. As Charles R. Cross once wrote, “If it is possible for an album that sold four million copies to be overlooked, or underappreciated, then In Utero is that lost pearl.” And based on the comments floating around on this site -- “not to be a dick but they really sucked and i agree with everyone that said they sucked” and “This review reqlly sucked” -- it seems there are a few looking to knock the grunge kings down. The more intelligent negative comments lash out at Cobain for his heroin addiction, scene posturing and really shitty parenting skills. Which are valid criticisms for Cobain the person, but not Cobain the musician. Not to oversimplify, but I think at least part of Nirvana’s backlash stems from the fact that one day they stopped being a band that sounded good and started being a band we’re expected to like, and then, maybe, to a band we’re expected to think was overhyped. You’d think the latter would stem from the former, but that leap is a big, alienating one.
So let’s compromise by forgetting that Nirvana conquered hair metal and Michael Jackson to champion the supposed underground rock movement. Let’s forget about Cobain’s contradictory, churlish press statements. And let’s forget about his world-shaking suicide, if only to evaluate In Utero without hype or hate or yesteryear reverence for context. Given that I was eight years old when Cobain’s body was discovered April 8, 1994, it’s easy for me to do. For me, it was a blip -- I was more into Sega Genesis and Boyz II Men at the time. I hope these things are easy for you to ignore, too. The only outside context you need is Nevermind, by which I mean the actual collection of songs, not the cultural juggernaut.
In Utero is the uglier, perhaps punker kid brother to the glossy yet powerful Nevermind. Almost everything about In Utero is a reaction to its predecessor -- the lyrics are at times confused and angry, caught up in the haze that comes with fame, while digging deeper into personal issues. “Serve the Servants” hits both -- “Teenage sex has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old” satirizes the band’s success, while “I tried hard to have a father / But instead I have a dad” hits the listener with familial strife through subtle word differences. The songs are also much more confrontational, both lyrically and musically, as evidenced by the dissonant “Scentless Apprentice” and the rather direct “Rape Me.” Even its poppiest track, the single “Heart-Shaped Box,” bears a muddied guitar tone and a dissonant solo. All of which is thanks to the record’s engineer, Steve Albini.
Albini was chosen to record In Utero specifically because he was Butch Vig’s opposite. Vig has helmed some great, spit-shined rock breakthroughs, such as Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, AFI’s Sing the Sorrow and Against Me!’s New Wave. If you want to blow up, he’s your man, thanks to lots of overdubbing and glossing. Albini, by willful contrast, achieves power by different, seemingly simpler methods -- well-placed mics, spacious rooms with good acoustics and an emphasis on sounding live (or “real” if you prefer). No one sounds quite like Albini, but he makes the recording process sound so easy. As a result, In Utero’s dry sound is enhanced by dirge-y guitar/bass and seemingly bottomless drum sounds. Dave Grohl, one of the best drummers of the `90s, gets his best sound on tracks like “Scentless Apprentice” and “All Apologies.” Even with additional vocal tracks, strings and guitar overdubs, the record still sounds raw.
But In Utero doesn’t just succeed thanks to Albini’s aesthetically pleasing techniques. Ya still gotta have the right tunes, man. “Serve the Servants” announces In Utero as a wholly different animal with its distorted opening note -- a `90s update of the Beatles’ single attention-grabbing chord from “A Hard Day’s Night” if I might be so bold. “Scentless Apprentice” ratchets the harshness up a notch. “Heart-Shaped Box” is haunting by comparison, hitting the listener with a mix of cancerous, romantic, feminine and mournful images. It’s a fucked-up love song. A bitter diatribe. “Rape Me,” with and without contrast, is a lot less convoluted or fleetingly sweet. It’s about being used, and Cobain uses his voice to inject meaning into the fairly basic lyrics (he says the title a lot). By the song’s end, Cobain, with Grohl on backup, drowns out all the music with his angry urge to be abused. It’s daring and energetic.
The record’s first half or so, for all its ebb and flow, is pretty cohesive. The second half diverges. Relatively gentle, Lennon-esque tunes like “Dumb,” “Pennyroyal Tea” and “All Apologies” are spread among freakouts like “Milk It,” “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” and “Tourette’s.” The listener can never fully get comfortable here, but everything is catchy so who cares. Cobain reveals a knack for pop genius on “All Apologies” and shreds his vocal cords seconds earlier on “Tourette’s,” and it all works.
“You Know You’re Right” left me hoping for a great “lost” fourth Nirvana album. With the Lights Out proved that, if there is such a thing, it’s going to take time and editing before anything close emerges. But maybe it’s OK if it never happens. Nirvana left behind three immaculate studio albums, plus Unplugged, arguably their best album overall. Regardless of when the next rarities set drops, there’s In Utero to punch me in the gut every time.