Nirvana’s In Utero at 25
On January 11, 1992, Nevermind topped the Billboard charts — and sent Kurt Cobain into a tailspin. Though never as adverse to achieving success as he’s been portrayed, the Nirvana singer, guitarist, and primary songwriter was overwhelmed by the band’s unexpected stardom, and his first instinct was to retreat. He turned down the offer of a headlining tour (in 1991, the band had performed 91 shows; in 1992, they performed 35). He made just three brief visits to a recording studio. The rest of the time, he holed up at home with his wife, Courtney Love, spending his days painting, playing his guitar and doing drugs.
When he finally re-emerged to concentrate on Nirvana’s next album, Cobain’s creative well had run somewhat dry; only seven of In Utero’s 12 tracks were newly written, the others resurrected from his archive, some written as far back as 1990. Yet the tone of the earlier songs matched Cobain’s bleak view of his current circumstances, making them still relevant, adding to In Utero’s potent mix of seething anger tempered by despondency and resignation.
It might be hard for some to grasp what a huge event In Utero’s release was on September 21, 1993. After Nevermind’s success, Nirvana became the biggest band in the world — one that seemed to be mired in a never-ending litany of controversy. Cobain’s drug use, his turbulent relationship with his wife, and the couple’s losing custody of their child, Frances Bean Cobain, generated a steady stream of headlines, in the music and non-music press. Even In Utero’s creation wasn’t free of drama. Nirvana’s handlers at DGC felt producer Steve Albini’s mix was too uncompromising. Albini refused to remix it, so when the band went ahead and remixed two tracks (“Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies”) anyway, and further softened the sound during mastering, they were seen as selling out. Those of us emotionally invested in the band awaited the album’s arrival with baited breath.
That early mix of the album made its way to the offices of The Rocket, where I worked as senior editor, on a bootleg cassette; the staff in turn borrowed it to listen to at home. I remember racing home with the treasure, pulling down the shades and turning off the phone so I wouldn’t be disturbed. Bootleg copies of the album proliferated, allowing people to compare the original mix to the final one. But to most ears, unless you had a high-end stereo, the differences between the mixes were unnoticeable, and the fuss was forgotten when the album finally came out. Our heroes had returned.
Cobain had the audacity to claim that In Utero’s songs weren’t drawn from his own experiences, telling one journalist, “There’s a little bit of my life on [the album], but for the most part it’s very impersonal.” But the album’s very first track — in fact, the very first line — quickly disabused the listener of that notion. “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old,” Cobain sings to a moderate rock beat in “Serve the Servants,” both celebrating and dismissing his accomplishments in one fell swoop (the same song also derides his parents’ divorce, the defining incident of his childhood, as “such a bore”). And clues to Cobain’s state of mind and what was going on in his life could be found throughout the rest of the album: the songs referenced reproduction, childbirth and babies (something also referenced in the album’s artwork, and, indeed, its very title), drugs (legal and otherwise), illness and disease, ambivalence about fame, and feelings of persecution.
It’s the angrier songs that rail against Cobain’s fears of exploitation, most strikingly in “Rape Me,” a snarling, defiant taunt towards one’s abusers. Nirvana had been performing the song live since mid-’91, but post-Nevermind, Cobain added a accusatory bridge about “My favorite inside source,” lines directed at the insiders he felt were leaking unflattering stories about him and his wife to the media; “You’ll always stink and burn,” he vows. He also evokes his patron saint in “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle,” claiming an allegiance with the outspoken actress, seeing in her yet another artist tortured by the establishment.
There are also quieter, world-weary numbers like “Dumb” and “Pennyroyal Tea.” “I’m not like them/but I can pretend,” Cobain sings in the former song, willingly choosing to hide behind a façade, while the latter is a distressing litany of sickness. Others, like the harrowing “Milk It” and “tourette’s,” have a frightening, visceral rage. Rumors prior to the album’s release speculated it might be a stark, lo-fi release in contrast to Nevermind’s sheen. But, while undeniably rawer in comparison to Nevermind, In Utero showed a band not adverse to a catchy melody and still capable of pounding out no-holds-barred rock ‘n’ roll.
The album’s most heralded song was the first single, “Heart-Shaped Box.” Musically, the song adheres to the Nirvana soft/loud “formula,” the melodicism of the verses exploding into the furious rage of the chorus. The pointed lyric is a disturbing depiction of a relationship, with Cobain alternately drawn and repelled by his inamorata, locked inside her “heart-shaped box,” pulled into her “magnet tar pit trap,” unable to escape her “meat-eating orchids.” This vibrant imagery climaxes with a striking vision of submissiveness: “Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back.” The mocking sarcasm of the chorus adds a dose of bitterness to this dark picture of love.
Following Cobain’s suicide six and a half months after In Utero’s release, the album was naturally scanned for clues; “Look on the bright side is suicide” from “Milk It” obviously stood out. There’s always a risk of reading too much into a work when looking at subsequent events, but In Utero’s signposts, if nothing else, do reveal a clear air of torment. While some songs evince a desire to burn it all down and walk away (“I do not want what I have got,” from “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” “You can’t fire me because I quit,” from the spellbinding “Scentless Apprentice”), in others there’s a sense of being past the point of caring. “I miss the comfort of being sad,” Cobain downheartedly observes in “Frances Farmer…,” while the beatific closer, “All Apologies,” finds him stricken with guilt, taking the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Cobain is the focus, because they’re his songs. But Nirvana was a band, and while the problems that plagued Nirvana in the wake of their success did to some extent drive the group’s members apart, they all later recalled how their differences were put aside in the studio while making this album. Cobain’s songs were remarkable, but he was also fortunate to have such powerhouse players as bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl beside him, providing a solid base from which to build his creations. And while the band’s members might have felt that their backs were against the wall, they all came out swinging. With its righteous anger, wry sarcasm, self-pity, angst, depression, stream-of-consciousness wordplay, and in-jokes, In Utero stands as Kurt Cobain’s most personal album.