This week was the celebration of the third and final Nirvana studio album, In Utero. The success of the band has been well-documented and many music fans know the story of Kurt Cobain. Their popularity seems to be bigger than it was when they emerged in the 1990s. Everywhere you see students wearing a Nirvana shirt and proclaiming their love for them.
It’s hard not to see why; whenever you listen to Nevermind you can hear how significant it was. Tracks like “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come As You Are” and “Lithium” are staple hits that showed a new direction for rock music. There are also lesser known tracks such as “Lounge Act” and “On a Plain” that show the depth of Cobain’s songwriting.
However, with In Utero, there are things inside of it that Nevermind doesn’t have. Firstly, and most obviously, is the level of aggression in the production and instrumentation. It is filthy; the distorted guitars are buzzing like hell, Dave Grohl’s drumming is stronger than before and Cobain’s vocals sound more volatile than usual. This is thanks to producer Steve Albini who was known for his raw and primal sound with bands such as Big Black and the Pixies.
“Scentless Apprentice” is one of the most disturbing tracks that showcases the aggression in the album. The drums explode with every beat, the guitar buzzes and it is all topped with Cobain delivering a scream that is so loud, listeners with headphones are put under the illusion that they’re becoming deaf. It’s here that In Utero is a whole new animal compared to Nevermind.
The second notable thing about In Utero is the lyrical content. Cobain’s personal life has been well-documented, and it was not a pretty one. His depression, marriage to Courtney Love, a heroin addiction and struggles with fame all culminated until his suicide in 1994. In Utero shows his anger, frustration and sadness in the last two to three years.
The hit single “Heart-Shaped Box” describes his relationship with Love using metaphors of their astrology signs and the unstable nature they had. Cobain sings the verse with a soft and sullen tone. But in the chorus, he snarls and rasps sarcastically about how he is “forever indebted to your priceless advice.”
Then we have tracks like “Dumb” and “All Apologies” where Cobain is drowning in self-deprecation. The former shows how he questions if he really is happy or if he’s just being an idiot in denial. The latter shows a side of him being apologetic (no pun intended) for his behavior and envious of how other people are enjoying themselves.
When you’re analyzing the lyrics, it’s really disturbing to see how unstable Cobain was in his final years. It’s written all over the album and foreshadows his impending death. Honestly, it’s difficult to listen to this album, which is sad and ironic, because I really enjoy the songs, the production and the lyrics. The passion and integrity is there which helped make Nirvana special in their time.
But when you take into account Cobain’s personal troubles, the whole listening experience is an eerie one. On top of that, there are some fans who have a strange fascination with him and his death, almost glorifying how depressed and tortured he was.
While I agree that his emotions help give his music life, I don’t know if celebrating his personal troubles is the right way to remember him, and I don’t think any of the remaining members would want that. During an interview with bassist Krist Novoselic, he never saw Cobain as a depressed person. Novoselic remembers him as a funny person and has fond memories of him.
But aside from all of that, this is a classic for many reasons and a testament to the lasting legacy that Nirvana left. If you haven’t, definitely check out this album and the rest of Nirvana’s discography. If you’re a fan or already know their music pretty well, I’m interested in your thoughts.
Do you prefer this album over Nevermind? Why? What experiences did you have with this album? What do you think made this album significant? Are fans too obsessed with Kurt Cobain and his personal life? Feel free to comment below.
Track Picks: “Serve the Servants,” “Scentless Apprentice,” “Heart-Shaped Box,” “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge Over Seattle,” “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” and “All Apologies”
Label: DGC Records
Listen to “In Utero” on Spotify: