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Raw and abrasive, “In Utero” still leads as a masterful work of contemporary rock

By Cayden Tsai and Sean Quigley

Staff Writers

Kurt Cobain performing at the Aragon Ballroom on Oct. 25, 1993 in Chicago; PHOTO CREDIT: James Crump/WireImage

Nirvana, a legendary rock band from the early 90s, sprouted an entirely new form of Rock overnight with their song “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a national grunge anthem representing the teenage angst of the millennial generation.

Before their success, the band was created by Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic in the mid-80s during their high school days in Aberdeen, Wash. Nirvana’s first work was named “Bleach”, an almost heavy metal album that the band had crafted in their early days. Two years later, they released “Nevermind”, a heavily awaited album that had first been teased by its release of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. 

After the success of “Nevermind”, Nirvana, now with two multi-platinum, seven platinum and two gold-certified albums, brought punk rock to the masses. This album shifted the music scene as hair metal perished overnight to make way for grunge, a new subgenre in the world of rock. 

Nirvana would then set out to create a third album. First, they would release their B-side compilation of tracks in 1992 named “Incesticide”. Some consider this to be the best record because of the rawness present within every track. 

The “Incesticide” cover is also a very interesting topic when it comes to the idea of Nirvana and their creativity, mainly showing the mind of Cobain. The unorthodox manner in which they make certain music and cover art is an intriguing subject manner. 

This unorthodox way of creating pieces of art would later be conjured into “In Utero”, the band’s third and final album. “In Utero” was released on Sept. 13, 1993 to warm reception among critics and fans, although the unorthodox method of the creation for the album left a few criticizing the sound.

Nirvana with Lori Goldstein performing at San Diego Sports Arena on Dec 29, 1993, in San Diego CA AMT #1; PHOTO CREDIT: Unknown

The album was created during the height of Nirvana’s popularity and right during the release of their B-side compilation album, “Incesticide”. The album was produced by Steve Albini, this collaboration creating an entirely new sound for Nirvana, unlike Nevermind which was produced by Butch Vig. The new sound along with the new feel of their music in “In Utero” would shift the band into heavier, more “grungy” sounding music. The lyrical aspects of “In Utero” are also far different from Nevermind, “In Utero” almost being an antithesis of Nevermind. Cobain created a far more raw and uncut feel to the meat and potatoes of the project, this mainly being supported by Albini’s technique of putting a number of mics in front of the speakers to create a surround sound effect. The dryness of the guitar and drums create a strong taste, distinguishing it from their past work also while leaving an indescribable feeling of hard-hitting raw and unfiltered guitar feedback with the hard hits of the drums then amplified by the thick bass.

The album starts off with a hard-hitting introduction for “Serve the Servants”. The idea of this track is mainly to be a message to Cobain’s father. “I tried hard to have a father/But instead, I had a dad/I just want you to know that I don’t hate you anymore/There is nothing I could say that I haven’t thought before,” the song went. This lyric is a literal description of the relationship between Cobain and his father. The second track in the album is “Scentless Apprentice”, the sharp ear-raping guitar coupled with the uncontrolled screeches from Cobain give this track an industrial hype disasterpiece that’s perfect for that afternoon run.

“Heart-shaped box” is the most popular track off of the record. The simplistic guitar riff and the dramatic drums from Grohl with the heavy bass create a melancholic yet nostalgic feeling. The lyrics also warp an entrance into the lyrical genius of Cobain, the meaning of the song being up for debate for the last 25 years. The next track is by far the most controversial in the album. Titled “Rape me”, the song talks about the sexual violence perpetrated against a woman, just for the rapist to be put into jail and get raped himself. The last half of the song has one of the greatest vocal performances by Cobain thus far in the album, in the background we can also hear Grohl’s vocals.

“Dumb” is another track that’s favorited in the album, by far the saddest and quietest song in “In Utero”. This track makes the feeling of a depressing spring vacation feel nostalgic and warm inside. This is the song I feel most personally resonates with me as the sound and the sorrowful lyrics mixes with the subtextual message underlying within the song. The lyric from “Dumb” (“My heart is broke but I have some glue, Help me inhale and mend it with you, We’ll float around and hang out on clouds Then we’ll come down and have a hangover”) is one of my favorites from Nirvana’s discography because the gentle yet mournful aspects of this verse hit right in the heart. 

Cobain’s parasites and inner domesticated virus are shown with the piece, “Milk it”. A short but sweet track talks about Cobain’s metaphorical and literal parasites, the irritable bowel syndrome he had, which caused much distress leading to his mental parasites. The next track, “Pennyroyal Tea”, is the follow-up to Milk it. In “Pennyroyal Tea”, he also describes the chronic stomach pain he constantly endured and the drugs he used to help the pain.

The last track on the album which is titled “All Apologies”, is very reminiscent of “Dumb”, although with a heavily distorted chorus. The idea of this track stems from the remorse he feels for his behavior or even the remorse he feels for his pure existence. Famously, Cobain had mentioned during the band’s 1992 concert in Reading that the song was dedicated to his wife and daughter. I sort of feel as though the song itself foreshadows this as the last hour for Cobain and Nirvana, not only due to the fact that the song is dedicated to his wife and daughter but also considering how the lyrics of the song make it seem like an apology letter to the world while also stating a farewell from the life he lives. The song is layered with soft guitar strums and a mellow drum beat. We can also feel a low but noticeable graze of a violin in the background. The chorus then jumps into a heavy ballad of instruments topped with the melancholic vocals by Cobain as he duets with his past and present.

The album also includes a secret track titled “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip”. This song would play after awaiting a number of minutes in silence, right after “All Apologies”. The song was a seven-minute improvised jam by the band, originally only featured on the European versions of the record. However, due to the Noveselic not wanting a competition between the two versions they ultimately added the track to the U.S. version. The 20th-anniversary edition of the “In Utero” also included a number of B-sides that the band had leftover on the cutting room floor for their record. 

“Marigold” is one of the most interesting B-sides that they have produced. The track consists of a simple bass riff with a light guitar strum pattern playing along. Noticeable, yet low, the drum flow also consists of the meat of the song, peppered with Dave Grohl’s vocals. The lyrics of the song subtly point to the relationship he has with Cobain. The interest that spikes from this song is mainly due to the total tone shift we see with this song from “In Utero” as well as Cobain shifting his position into the backing vocals of the song although Cobain does play the guitar for the song with Novoselic on bass.

“Moist vagina” is another interesting track from their B-side catalog. The song has a gripping melody with Cobain’s vocals shining toward the last half of the song. The song has a throat-grasping guitar riff that flows along with the vocals. Although the lyrics are questionable in some light, the song can be somewhat seen as a reference to marijuana. The forthright sexual remarks are a metaphor that talks about marijuana, especially considering the only thing Kurt sings in the chorus is “Marijuana”. 

“Sappy” is another interesting song from the B-side, it was originally written during Cobain’s teenage years in high school which was also shown on “Montage of Heck”. The song mainly describes the criticisms about stereotypical gender roles in heterosexual relationships. “I hate myself and want to die” was the original title for “In Utero” but Noveselic feared it could potentially lead to a lawsuit. The track is a nonsensical blend of guitar thrashes and has surprisingly no references to suicide. The rest of the B-side tracks for “In Utero” are mainly instrumentals and demos of the songs on the album. 

Give me a Nirvanic afterworld…So I can sigh eternally.

Kurt performing a solo on In Bloom at San Diego Sports Arena on Dec 29, 1993, in San Diego CA AMT #1; PHOTO CREDIT: Unknown

I believe “In Utero” is not good, but not bad. I wouldn’t consider it mediocre or mid, because it’s a masterpiece. From the complete tonal shift from “Nevermind” to “In Utero”, the band’s diverse range of artistic value is clearly visible from the listener. With a new producer, the album was able to intimidate the listener with heavy and raw instrumentals accompanied by Cobain’s screeching vocals. 

The lyrics of the tracks on the album are also much deeper and leave an everlasting taste of sadness and distress. “In Utero” also gives a greater insight into the heart of the band as well as a deep dive (no pun intended) into the mind of Cobain. Cobain’s way of expressing emotion in this project truly shows the development of his songwriting, shaping a harsh and dry atmospheric landscape in the age of post-teenage angst. This is an album I will come back to many times in the future to feel and revisit the raw and eccentric nature of this amazing album.

The popularity of Nevermind strongly helped the success of “In Utero”. It reached number one on the US Billboard 200 and UK Albums Chart; “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies” reached number one on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart. The album sold over 180,000 copies in the first week of its release and went on to sell over 15 million albums worldwide.

“In Utero” is contrarian rock. It’s meant to be everything Nevermind wasn’t and perhaps nothing expresses that more purely than the ugly, dissonant chord that kickstarts “Serve the Servants”. It’s not exactly a song I would call difficult, but it’s abrasive and confrontational. The follow-up, “Scentless Apprentice”, has a looser, more meandering structure closer to noise rock sensibilities and abstract lyrics inspired by Patrick Suskind’s novel “Perfume.” This shows how the expressionism in “In Utero” is far more confrontational compared to that of Nevermind. 

Nirvana’s punk rock attitude is also heavily prevalent throughout the record. A good portion of the songs in “In Utero” refers to feminism and woman’s rights. Songs like “Rape me”, “Heart-shaped box”, “Francis Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” and “Pennyroyal Tea” all talk about the sexism and/or neglect of women in modern-day culture. Nirvana were a large advocate for the LGBT community and of minority groups in America. Cobain once said, “If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us—leave us the f*** alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.”

To add to Nirvana’s support for women’s rights and LGBT rights, many saw how “In Utero” paved the way for more female music artists. Even after Cobain’s death, many people find inspiration in not only “In Utero” but also the entirety of Nirvana’s discography. People such as Corey Taylor, the lead vocalist for Slipknot, had found inspiration from their work and have been a fan of their work since the Bleach era.

On a more personal note. The album resonates with me, as much as a nostalgic smell. I remember hearing this album for the first time, the sounds and the feel departing into an entirely new realm of rock that I had never heard before. From the high feedback guitar screeches of “Scentless Apprentice” to the soft and melancholic melody of “Dumb”, I can’t help but feel the nostalgia of moments I’d never had experienced yet continue to recollect.

Kurt Cobain playing Live and loud on Dec 13, 1993, in Seattle WA. Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic; (Also the featured image)

“In Utero” has not only been felt through the fans of Nirvana but also the world. Their influences range from artists that have been around since the mid-90s to now. The core essence of this album truly intoxicates you with feelings that Cobain himself felt throughout his life. The lyrics not only sum up the genius within Cobain but as well as the masterful composition with the raw instrumentation that weaves both heart-pumping and gloomy mood into the mind of the listener. The strong tones give a lasting impression for years to come, asceticism and anti-conformity rule the plain in which this album stands. I can strongly recommend this album to anyone interested in rock. We may never get another album like “In Utero” ever, which is why it’s such a masterful work of art that not only exceeds the contemporary legacy they had built up but also changes the rock scene through the art of expressionism.


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