Released on the 21st of September 1993, the album In Utero was conceived by lead singer Kurt Cobain to be the rebirth of the Seattle band Nirvana. When looking into the history of the band Nirvana and what was happening with the members at the time of recording and subsequent release of In Utero, with retrospect it would be fair to say things were not really going that well for Cobain at that time, given he would be dead by his own hand less than a year later.
Nirvana had broken into the mainstream with their second studio album, Nevermind back in 1991. It was this album that took Nirvana from obscurity and then catapulted them into a stratospheric and rapid rise to fame. The dramatic ascent came with a grunge monic hung around the band’s necks choking them of their artistic freedom as they became more famous. The new mantel as the poster boy of grunge music movement never sat well with Cobain.
To move beyond this frustrating new categorisation, Cobain wanted to make an album that was true to his musical artistic vision, which was one of simplicity and sonic raw beauty steeped in the punk tradition. He originally had wanted to name the album I Hate Myself and I Want to Die, a phrase that had originated in his journals in mid-1992. At the time, Cobain used the phrase as a response whenever someone asked him how he was doing and he intended the album title as a joke, stating he was “tired of taking this band so seriously and everyone else taking it so seriously”. Obviously, over history there is a tragic extra layer of relevance to the original title. Bassist Krist Novoselic convinced Cobain to change the title due to fear that it could potentially result in a lawsuit. The band then considered using Verse Chorus Verse—a title taken from its song ‘Verse Chorus Verse’, and a (at the time current) working title of Sappy, taken again from a song in their catalogue of the same title before eventually settling on In Utero.
In Utero was taken from a poem written by Cobain’s wife Courtney Love who was also the singer/guitarist of the band Hole. The album title In Utero is Latin for “in a women’s uterus”, for instance during a term of a pregnancy. This choice of title has Cobain creating an interesting juxtaposition to the Nevermind album cover that depicts a young baby swimming after a $1 note on a hook, leaving their audience to draw the conclusion that they were potentially going back to the beginning. Moreover, the baby is submerged in water whereas the anatomical model on the cover of In Utero looks like she is bathing in the desert offering up more juxtaposition between the albums.
The album was recorded over two weeks in February 1993 at Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota in a studio that was in total isolation during a freezing winter with plenty of snow. In retrospect this worked well to keep the band focused and distractions away from Cobain. Although he claimed that the album was “very impersonal”, many of its songs contain heavy allusions to Cobain’s personal life and struggles, expressing feelings of angst that were common with themes on Nevermind tying the two bodies of work together. In Utero is definitely a flipped middle finger to anyone who had accused them of becoming a sell-out after the success of Nevermind and Cobain appears to want to reverse the effects on In Utero.
The result is an album that is either considered to be Nirvana’s artistic high point or a protracted suicide note. In Utero is undoubtedly the most significant statement Nirvana ever made in their short canon of three studio albums. It is the final piece of a puzzle that still continues to captivate, excite and enthral audiences for several generations. However, there is no denying the fact that this is the final artistic statement from Cobain and it is an honest and complicated one, just like the man himself. Nirvana as a band had found a balance to their sound, ethos and intent with the current liner up of Cobain, joined by fellow founding member, bassist Krist Novoselic and the might and power of Dave Grohl on the drums. Moreover, add Pat Smear into the mix as well. Despite his role with the band being mostly one of a touring musician at the time, Smear’s presence was a welcome addition to the band and the fans.
The opening track of In Utero is ‘Serve The Servants’, which starts with a drum stick count in, and then a loud dissonant chord and then quickly moves to an almost Beatle-esque melody with Cobain singing the opening line; “Teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old.” This opening quip from Cobain is clearly giving his audience a glimpse into his state of mind and takes the wind out of the naysayers sails before we are even underway. It also sets the tone for the rest of the album as an raw, honest artistic statement. The raw Steve Albini sound literally rips through the speakers in a gloriously relentless way, giving the listener the experience of exactly how Cobain wanted Nirvana to sound, heavy as f*ck. Moreover, it is important to note that this is not a nod to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ the opening track off Nevermind, rather the antithesis. Lyrically Cobain references many aspects of his life at the time and they almost act as liner notes for the album to come. This song was the most finished composition brought to the band by Cobain at the beginning of the recording process.
The album then changes up a gear with the next track, ‘Scentless Apprentice’. The song was inspired by the Patrick Süsand novel, Perfume. Cobain claimed to have read the book many times and felt a kinship to the lead character, a serial killer with no scent. Cobain adopts a different approach lyrically with ‘Scentless Apprentice’ and his use of loose off hand phrases and descriptive images to evoke the feelings of aspects of the main character’s narrative. A beautiful example of this language technique are lines such as; “there are countless formulas for pressing flowers”, which rhymes with nothing else in the song but fits so perfectly in the overall composition. The inception of the song came from drummer Dave Grohl, who came up with the beginnings of the song as a guitar riff and then added the drum beat. Cobain initially didn’t like the riff but clearly changed his mind and would later comment in an MTV interview after the album release how much he enjoyed composing with the band and wanted to do more in the future. This is one of the few songs that Nirvana ever composed as a band. Cobain’s vocal delivery is next level on this song. As an interesting side note, Cobain recorded a majority of the vocals for this album in one day over six hours.
‘Heart Shaped Box’, was the lead single of the album. This is also the first of three songs from the original mix that are remixed by Scott Litt. In comparison to the previous two songs it is evident that ‘Heart Shaped Box’ was most likely picked as the single as it sounds like it could have been on Nevermind. Lyrically, there has been many discussions by everyone including Cobain as to what the song is about. The singer was partly inspired by a documentary about children with cancer and that’s where the line “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black” comes from. The title comes from heart shaped boxes Courtney used to give Cobain when they first started dating. There is no denying the genius of this composition and it still receives critical acclaim as perhaps Nirvana’s best song. It has aged like a fine wine and still sounds as macabrely brilliant today, as it did 30 years ago.
‘Rape Me’ is not only the most controversial song on the record, it is also the most misunderstood. The intent of the use of the phrase ‘Rape Me’ was meant to be one of empowerment for women but unfortunately this argument as an anti-rape message is not well executed within the song. Hence, a misunderstood narrative despite honourable intentions. Fans have often wondered if this song was addressing Cobain’s new relationship with the music business and fame. ‘Rape Me’ was an older song and has elements of the band’s previous sound from the other two albums. Cobain wrote the song whilst living with Grohl when he first joined the band. The song itself is a simple composition within the loud, quiet frame work.
‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle’ is song about a Seattle actress from the 1940’s. Farmer wasn’t a Hollywood success story but rather a tragic tale of abuse and abandonment with a tragic ending. When Courtney Love married Cobain she wore a dress that belonged to Farmer. Interestingly, Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean is not named after Frances Farmer but rather Frances McKee of the Scottish band The Vaselines of whom Cobain was also a great admirer. This composition is best heard on the original mix by Albini. Another example of Cobain’s prose sensibilities is the catchy delivery of “I miss the comfort of being sad”, followed by a brilliant drum fill by Grohl. This simplicity is a perfect example of Cobain’s magic as a song writer.
Side A ends with the song ‘Dumb’. The song just simply starts and drops the listener right into the lyric and melody. This self-loathing masterpiece is an old song from 1990 with the narrative looking into self-reflection and how one relates to the social environment surrounding them. This inward perspective is enhanced by the addition of the cello. Cobain answered some questions about “Dumb” during a 1993 interview for Melody Maker, explaining the reading of irony within his lyrics; “That’s just about people who’re easily amused, people who not only aren’t capable of progressing their intelligence but are totally happy watching 10 hours of television and enjoying it. I’ve met a lot of dumb people. They have a sh*tty job, they may be totally lonely, they don’t have a girlfriend, they don’t have much of a social life, and yet, for some reason, they’re happy.”
Side B opens with ‘Very Ape’. This song is a completely overlooked gem. This may be one of the best Nirvana songs in retrospect. It is very short at only one minute and fifty six seconds, but it is, I argue, the best one minute and fifty six seconds on the record. Early acoustic demo versions of this song elude to how the rhythm of Cobain’s right hand strumming has affected the melody. Dave Grohl is a standout on this song with his drum part dominating the pocket with restraint and the best flams ever, nodding to his disco influences.
‘Milk It’ is once again a flex on Cobain’s part as to how far ahead of the pack he was by simply going back to basics in the most primal punk way. It has a jazz almost improvisational aspect to it. Then there are the lyrics that cut the air like a knife with a chorus of ,“Look on the bright side of suicide.” The last line is, “Your scent is still here in my place of recovery”, this line in particular shows the lyrical genius Cobain possessed and how he mastered descriptive language techniques with astounding simplicity, giving the word structure an almost childlike catchy rhyme. The way that Cobain plays with phonology within his vocal delivery is very unique even to this day. The only other modern artist that has successfully adopted and used the technique is Eminem.
‘Pennyroyal Tea’ is yet another older song. The song can be found in its original Leonard Cohen-ish demo form also from the time where Dave Grohl was living with Cobain. Cohen is also mentioned in the lyrics of the song. To give perspective, Pennyroyal Tea is a tea that was used to abort pregnancy. The song itself is like a love letter to depression. The title of the song and the lyrical content continues to show Cobain’s fascination with medical history and the human body. Moreover, retro medical models are featured throughout the album art work and later the tour in the way of stage props. This song is also remixed by Scott Litt. Litt strips the top back and pushes the bass forward in the mix, very much in the style he uses with R.E.M. It sounds fantastic within the song. However, Albini gets his opportunity to remix back to how he had recorded the song with the 20th Anniversary Edition in 2013. The entire 2013 Albini remix of the album is definitely worth a listen if one has not ventured there yet.
The next track on the album is called, ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’. The title has a double irony as this is not only as the title suggests, the least radio friendly song you have ever heard in the mainstream sensibilities, it is also the longest track on the album at just shy of five minutes. Cobain’s dark sense of humour appears to be peppered all over his work. The working title for this song was ‘Nine Month Media Blackout’ which referred to the term of Love’s pregnancy, which had come with much scandal and drama in relation to drug allegations. The bridge element of the song has a wonderful mantra element to it with the lyrics “Hate your enemies, love your friends” being screamed with acid-like precision down the microphone. Albini’s production style is the perfect conduent to capture the intensity that Cobain was bringing to the table with this song. Raw punk brilliance.
‘tourette’s’ with a deliberate small t in the title is also the shortest song on the album at just one minute and thirty five seconds. This is a brilliant short melodic explosion of pure energy on the verge of having no control like a sufferer of Tourette’s. It is actually a really beautiful song that is steeped in punk sensibilities. The lyrics use repetition as well as epistrophe in the verses; with the only exception being the first line, which ends with the word “mayday”, otherwise all the lines in the verses end with “my heart.” The chorus is simply the word “hey” on repeat. Cobain once introduced the song as ‘The Eagle has Landed’ as a joke at a concert that was bootlegged and the song was credited as such. ‘tourette’s’ as a song sits so well at this point in the overall track listing of the album.
The final track on the album is titled ‘All Apologies’, and is a slower song with a regretful sentiment set to a sweet melody. This is the final song on the album to be remixed by Scott Litt. It was basically stripped down with the overall bass lifted in the mix. The early demo sounds like the Beach Boys and has a much happier element thanks to the rhythm. Cobain’s painful realisations to the new life he is forced to live through fame produces the foreboding lyric “I wish I was like you, easily amused”. The cello part is a welcome addition to the sound scape of the song, adding a sentimental tone. “All in all, is all we are” is the final lyric and the supposed end of the album. However, there is a hidden track originally on non-US CD pressings of the album include ‘Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip’ as a hidden track. It is listed on the back cover as track 13, but is heard after approximately 20 minutes of silence on track 12 following “All Apologies”, beginning at 24:00. I will leave the listener to draw their own conclusion of the hidden track. Personally, I love it.
The Fall Out
What follows the release of In Utero is nothing short of a rock n’ roll legend now. The tour was fraught with overdoses and cancelled shows and the unravelling of Cobain started to become more apparent as time went on. Within six months of the release of In Utero on April 5th 1994, Cobain committed suicide at the age of 27 and his body was found three days later on April the 8th in the greenhouse above his garage at his home in Seattle.
This was the moment when the reality of Kurt Cobain the humble artist ended and the myth of Kurt Cobain the grunge legend began, landing his legacy right back in the spot that he had tried so hard to avoid with the creation of In Utero. However, because of this, the album itself then came under a lot more scrutiny than perhaps was ever intended during the creation. Perhaps he knew before he started that this was the last significant artist statement he will make.
In Utero would go on to be a huge artistic and critical success but the question must be asked, would this kind of success have had the same destiny if Cobain continued to live? Given the fans reaction to this album not only in 1993, but over the album’s 30 year history, it is fair to say In Utero exquisitely closes the circle of the Nirvana studio album trilogy by sonically taking you back, to where it all began…