In Utero was Nirvana’s third and final studio album, released about six months before Kurt Cobain’s untimely demise. Though officially ruled as a suicide, many fans believe in a variety of conspiracy theories which suggest otherwise. We won’t get into that controversy here, though it probably does bear mentioning that In Utero was originally titled I Hate Myself and I Want to Die.
Following up from their massive hit Nevermind (one of the best-selling albums of all time), Nirvana set out to record something quite distinct with In Utero, and it shows. Feeling that Nevermind was “too polished”, they sought out well-known producer Steve Albini in hopes of giving In Utero a more raw sound. Albini was largely selected based on his work on Surfer Rosa by the Pixies and Pod by The Breeders. Further, Nirvana wanted the songs themselves to be less accessible, and they accomplished this goal.
Right from the intro to the first song you can tell that In Utero is not going to be Nevermind 2. The very first discordant strum and the unusual chord progression of Serve the Servants bear no resemblance to the catchy, More-than-a-Feeling-esque tune of Nirvana’s break out hit, Smells like Teen Spirit. Rather than crisp and clear bass and drum parts from Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, everything is much muddier. In a lot of ways the lyrical style isn’t too different, just the cynicism has moved from mocking school pride to sardonically explaining the bands success and the trials of fame: “Teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old. Self-appointed judges judge, more than they have sold.”
Heart-Shaped Box was the first single released off of In Utero, coupled with a video that has since been named by many organizations as among the best of all time.
Beginning with an addictive guitar hook, it again has a different tone and feel than previous Nirvana songs and hits. The verses are are quiet and sombre, and then suddenly break into a raucous chorus almost out of nowhere. The theme of Kurt railing against fame and the media continues here as well: “Hey! Wait! I’ve got a new complaint!” After Lana Del Rey performed a cover version of the song twenty years later, Cobain’s ex-wife, Courtney Love, claimed the song was about her vagina, though he had maintained that the verses were in fact inspired by a documentary he’d seen about children with cancer.
Following Heart-Shaped Box is Rape Me, which, as you might guess from the title, was not always the most radio-friendly track on In Utero. After initially offering Nirvana the choice of which song to play for the 1992 MTV Music Video Awards, MTV subsequently insisted on Smells like Teen Spirit. In protest, they began to play Rape Me, only switching over to the then-current single Lithium after MTV was about to pull the plug.
Surprisingly, and maybe intentionally, Rape Me is the song most reminiscent of Nevermind and of Smells like Teen Spirit in particular. The chords progress in a similar way (except for going from minor thirds to fifths instead of fifths to minor thirds), the verse and chorus are the same in each respective song except for dynamic shifts, the strumming pattern is similar, and the drum rhythm is virtually identical.
Two of the real highlights of the album arrive later in the track list: Dumb and Pennyroyal Tea. Both would appear on Nirvana’s acoustic album, MTV Unplugged in New York (and are about equally enjoyable on each release), and both reflect a maturing of the band in many ways. With its elegant arrangement, including vibrant cello melodies, Dumb has some of Cobain’s best lyrics, including “The sun is gone, but I have a light”, which could be found on many of the band’s shirts. Pennyroyal Tea showcases Cobain’s raw vocal talent better than any other track, as well as an inspired solo. Both songs also feature a more restrained and inventive percussion approach than anything Grohl had recorded previously. Incidentally, Pennyroyal Tea had been set to be released as the third single off In Utero in April of 1994, but was cancelled in light of Cobain’s unexpected death. The record label (Geffen Records) did not want to be seen as profiting from Cobain’s passing, especially in light of the intended b-side track, I Hate Myself and I Want to Die.
All in all, In Utero proved to be a success for Nirvana in most respects. It was not as popular as Nevermind and was not intended to be, yet still is routinely named as amongst the best albums of the ‘90s. It manages to both see the band move in new directions as well as return to many of the noise and punk motifs that characterized their early years. Tragically, it underscores a simple fact: had this not been Nirvana’s final album, the band may not have achieved quite the same legendary status it now has, but almost certainly would have seen innovative and captivating material from the trio. But what else could Kurt be? All apologies.