Classic Album: Nirvana - In Utero

A very public, and very accomplished, statement of grisly intent.
Nirvana - In Utero
It’s easy to forget, now that Dave Grohl is the eversmiling official ‘friendliest man in rock’, that he once occupied a drum riser behind the man Middle America held up as evidence of society’s decay. Take it from a fan who experienced the grunge explosion in real time; Nirvana were a band your parents didn’t want you to like.

But what else was there? As the ’80s gave way to the ’90s, music was in a state of perpetual confusion. Hair metal had bastardised guitar music, hip-hop and rap were still largely underground and generated a considerable level of fear, and pop was an endless succession of Mariahs, Michaels and Madonnas, all churning out three-and-a-half minute slices of guff for the masses to gobble up at will.

Rock music was at its most stagnant for years, and it is simply impossible to overestimate the impact ‘Nevermind’, and in particular ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, made in 1991. Suddenly, rock music was viable, cool, and dangerous once again. Millions of naked baby-adorned copies flew from the shelves, and in Kurt Cobain, Generation X had its ideal poster boy.

Two years later however things had changed. THAT song had become a millstone around his neck, and Kurt was finding life in the spotlight much harder than he could have imagined. Exhaustion, addiction and the newfound pressures of family life were also taking their toll. So when it came time to record their third LP, it was with a very different attitude that Nirvana entered Minnesota’s Pachyderm Studios.

Listening back to ‘In Utero’ now, it is immediately striking how the slick, polished sound of its predecessor is eschewed for a coarse noise and much more nihilistic lyrics. ‘Nevermind’ might have forced grunge and alternative rock into the mainstream, but this record was destined to defy such categorisation, adhering to no blueprint and wilfully flying off into acutely murky directions.

The opening couplet from ‘Serve The Servants’ sums it all up nicely enough; “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old”. Kurt goes on to attack the media’s negative treatment of his wife and his estranged father; it was clear grunge’s messiah wasn’t happy. A noted feminist, he would later become immensely frustrated at ‘Rape Me’ being banned and churning up such controversy, yet had the PC brigade bothered to delve further than merely viewing the track listing, they would have discovered far more unsettling topics.

Lashing out with his lyrics, cancer (‘Heart Shaped Box’), mental illness (‘Frances Farmer…’), murder (‘Scentless Apprentice’) and abortion (‘Pennyroyal Tea’) all emerge as dominant themes.
Steve Albini’s production, scratchy and stark in places, (and later remixed heavily by Scott Litt) managed to tease out previously unheard aspects of Cobain’s vocals. Hence we get tracks like ‘Dumb’, a dreamy acoustic number augmented by cello and a wistful vocal line that is a million miles from growling about mullatos and albinos. The similarly restrained ‘All Apologies’ ends the record, but only after the penultimate two tracks threaten to plunge into a wail of feedback. Arguably the band’s finest track, its reflective repeated outro of “all in all is all we are” provides a fitting conclusion, and one that is made all the more poignant by subsequent events.

In hindsight, it is so tempting to read into Nirvana’s third and final studio release and pick out the warning signs. Check out those lyrics; “I lie in the soil”, “Look on the bright side is suicide”, “Throw down your umbilical noose”. How about the famously discarded song and original album title, ‘I Hate Myself And Want To Die’ or the gruesome, Cobain directed artwork? In truth, we’ll never know the full extent of what was going on in Kurt’s mind as the album was written and recorded, though listening back now can be a harrowing experience. In the same vein as Joy Division’s ‘Closer’, it can certainly be viewed as a very public, and very accomplished, statement of grisly intent.

In an interview with French television just after ‘In Utero’s release, Kurt talks frankly about his drug use and anger at the press, arguing that most of the album is very impersonal. Then a chilling prophecy; “Eventually, I want to be seen as a singer/songwriter rather than a grunge rocker, and sit on a chair and sing like Johnny Cash and it won’t be seen as a big joke, but who knows?” Just weeks later, he realised this dream at the group’s last meaningful live performance, leading them through the triumphant ‘Unplugged In New York’.
If you want to capture the essence of Nirvana, ignore the over-hyped ‘Nevermind’ and go for the record that best holds up Cobain as a musical genius. ‘In Utero’ is his triumphant epitaph; highly literate songwriting, deft guitar skills, pure visceral energy and the desire to do things his own way. To burn out at his brightest, rather than fade away.

Words by Marcus Foley

TRACKLIST

Released: 21st September 1993
Producer: Steve Albini

01. Serve The Servants
02. Scentless Apprentice
03. Heart-Shaped Box
04. Rape Me
05. Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge
On Seattle
06. Dumb
07. Very Ape
08. Milk It
09. Pennyroyal Tea
10. Radio Friendly Unit Shifter
11. Tourette’s
12. All Apologies

MUSICIANS
Kurt Cobain: guitar, vocals
Krist Novoselic: bass
Dave Grohl: drums, backing vocals
Kera Schaley: cello

1993: IN THE NEWS
• Film icon Audrey Hepburn dies aged 63.
• Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk share the Nobel Peace Prize.
• Czechoslovakia is divided into Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
• Bill Clinton becomes the 42nd President of the USA.
• Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, both aged 11, are convicted of the brutal murder of two-year-old James Bulger in Liverpool.

1993: THE ALBUMS
‘Republic’ New Order
‘Pablo Honey’ Radiohead
‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ Blur
‘Gold Against the Soul’ Manic Street Preachers
‘Vs’ Pearl Jam

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