Twenty-five years ago, on September 21st 1993, Nirvana shared their third and final album ever In Utero. Fifteen million copies later, it has attained a cult like status in rock history. A defiant step away from the polished grunge of Nevermind released two years’ prior, Cobain and his bandmates began to detest the mainstream, rock idol status they’d reached. In Utero was their chance to share a grittier sound, almost in an attempt to shed their skin of the commercial success and fame attained with Nevermind. The result was one of their most aggressive yet insightful albums.
In Utero’s predecessor Nevermind is regarded as one of the most influential albums in rock history, because it was the first time such heavy, grungy rock music had completely and unintentionally found a place on the charts. Cobain especially struggled with the level of fame that ensued, the copious number of fans, and the newfound pressure from the media and music industry corporates. Lots of this angst is channeled into In Utero, angst that became more sinister after Kurt Cobain’s untimely death, occurring six short months after the release of the album. Cobain’s lyricism that constantly returns to themes of anger at the the media, himself, and the world in general provided an unsettling sense of context to the devastating events that followed.
The positive of the unpredicted and uncontrollable success of Nevermind was that it gave the band a free pass to go in whatever direction they wanted on their next album. Knowing this, the band booked the secluded Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota and made a point to their label not to bother them at all during the recording. No procedure visits from A&R representatives or managers were allowed. They were so serious about their privacy that they booked their sessions under the name ‘The Simone Ritchie Bluegrass Ensemble’.
An important figure for the album was producer Steve Albini. Cobain sought him out for the album, as Albini had produced two of his favourite records – Surfer Rosa by The Pixies and Pod by The Breeders. Nirvana wanted the edgy and raw sound that Albini was known for. Albini was notoriously unimpressed with Nirvana before working with them, describing them as ‘R.E.M with a fuzzbox’. Despite his reluctance, Albini agreed. He was also critical of their management, making a point not to speak to anyone other than the band during recording to avoid interference. By the end of the recording, Albini said he had a ‘whole new respect for the band’.
The studio was booked for two weeks, but their serious work ethic meant that the album was recorded in six days, before Albini went to mix it all together. Some hiccups ensued with mixing – the label didn’t like Albini’s rough around the edges style, and Cobain himself had mixed feelings about the mastering. Once it became clear the friends of the band were resonating with the album, the group became determined to release it as it stood. On September 21st 1993, In Utero arrived internationally.
In Utero served the purpose Nirvana desired, yet still became more commercially successful than anticipated. While the dark lyrics and aggressive instrumentals warded off some of their passive listeners, In Utero still landed at number one in the charts. The more abrasive tracks like ‘Rape Me’ which was subjected to a lot of controversy given its name, ‘Milk It’ and ‘Scentless Apprentice’, were balanced out with the more commercial ‘Heart Shaped Box’ which was released as their first single, as well as the dark but melodic ‘Dumb’.
The overwhelming noise of the album means that the lyrics take the back seat on the first listen. But, upon analysis, the disturbing sadness, anxiety, and self loathing Cobain was experiencing in his complicated life becomes impossible to ignore. His lyrical intelligence fully secures his spot in rock history, with perceptive musings on the human condition, hidden beneath his sarcasm and self deprecation.
Twenty-five years after its release, In Utero has maintained its spot in rock history. Despite the unsettling themes and corrosiveness of the album, the skill and the overall listenability of the album allowed it to connect with fans and reach the cult like status it has achieved today. The album is still as cutting edge and unique as it was when it first came out, despite all of the rock albums that’ve arrived since and attempts to emulate the raw grit of this record. Cobain’s sensitive soul and the spirit of Nirvana lives on through In Utero, a tragic but beautiful album that has safely secured a slot in the history books.