At the time of publishing this article, In Utero was turning 27 years old to the day of its release. It was an album that Nirvana wanted to take a sidestep from the sounds of Nevermind and highlight both the “raw” and the “candy pop” sounds that lead singer Kurt Cobain felt, and proved, the band were capable of.
Steve Albini produced the album, with a little tinkering from Scott Litt. Albini’s worked with Mogwai, Godspeed you! Black Emperor and Jarvis Cocker to name a few artists I love along with a plethora of grunge staples such as The Pixies, The Breeders, Veruca Salt and Bush.
Albini’s producing style is described as minimal and exacting and he often focuses on the rhythm section with aggressive, violent sounding guitars and I think that is why I like In Utero so much. Albini often records tracks with the whole band playing their instruments at the same time in the same room whereas it is common practice to record instruments separately. This method was carried out on most tracks throughout the album.
Lyrically Kurt Cobain seems angry, vulnerable, naive, depressed, assured, apprehensive and dismayed. The album is conflicted and it feels like it is deliberately conveying conflict, confusion and a lot of anger. Maybe even hate.
Serve The Servants kicks off In Utero with a screaming, down-tuned guitar sound before becoming quite a poppy number. There is a guitar solo in this and Foo Fighters’ Learn To Fly sounds like it’s directly ripped from it, I’m surprised I couldn’t find anything out about this on the internet. Scentless Apprentice is my favourite Nirvana song with Dave Grohl’s pounding drums front and centre, the rhythm, distorted and heavy guitars, and Cobain’s screams and echoed vocals are just a combination making for the perfect sound.
Heart Shaped Box is the first single from the album and it does mirror the structures and sounds of Smells Like Teen Spirit. Scott Litt remixed this song and All Apologies to make them more commercially viable but the Albini-mixed original released on the 20th Anniversary release is the better of the two!
Rape Me is a raw, conventional sounding track which is actually an anti rape track (happy to hear that!). Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle is one of many swipes throughout the album at fame and the industry while referencing feminism. Frances Farmer was a rebellious actress that Kurt saw a lot of himself in and the revenge on Seattle is more like him having his revenge as he leaves Seattle burning after this belting four minutes.
We then get Dumb and Very Ape. Dumb brings down the pace and includes cello and some beautiful harmonies while Very Ape is a conflicted song in lyric and sound (deliberately no doubt) and talks about being "very nice" and "very ape" while carrying out some of its own chest thumping moments in the instruments.
Milk It has a dark sound to it with the pace and mood picking up and coming back down with a real ebb and flow. Kurt claims to be a "parasite" and that suicide is a “bright side.”
Some of the tracks of In Utero where spawned years before, Pennyroyal Tea is one of those. Played live during the Nevermind tour, this track was penned to be the third single of the album but was pulled after Cobain took his own life.
Radio Friendly Unit Shifter is anything but and is one of the noisier, live sounding tracks with Kurt repeatedly asking “what is wrong with me” with feedback dominating the closing moments. Tourette’s then covers one of my Nirvana loves; less than two minutes of spewing nonsense with drums and guitar that beat the living crap out of you that finishes just before it can kill you you off.
And then we get All Apologies. The album closer, played stunningly in the MTV Unplugged sessions. Not only is this an album closer, nor a chapter closing, this is the end of Nirvana. It’s a fitting goodbye as it showcases a number of things that are great about the band. The ability to shift from soft and brooding to distorted and pounding without being jolting. “In the sun I feel as one.” “All in all is all we are.” Sweet, naïve and dedicated to his wife and daughter, this song always takes me back to snippets of MTV News when Cobain passed away and for that it always strikes a particular chord.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Nevermind. But there’s something about this album that trumps it. It’s raw, edgy, ambitious and it frames a time in music that would be very shortly followed by very dark, unknown and tough times for fans of Nirvana.
In Utero is better than Nevermind, convince me otherwise!