ON THIS DAY, September 21st, 1993, NIRVANA released their third full-length album, In Utero, on DGC Records. It is a testament to the transcendent talents of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana that the band followed up one of the most transformative records in rock history with an equally cathartic and essential batch of songs.
Nevermind, right from the outset, was heralded as a once-in-a-lifetime event. It’s the perfect “You had to be there” moment. Hindsight can cloud the memory with exaggerations and hyperbole, but the release of Nevermind was as seismic and earth-shattering as all commentators suggest. It’s a flawless album that spoke to a generation who could not relate to the poodle show the rock world had become. With Nevermind, Nirvana single-handedly obliterated what came before and opened the door for their contemporaries to march through confidently.
It was the most stunning coup in rock history. Overnight, Nirvana went from unkempt runts to rock deities. Every move they made was analyzed, dissected and discussed. This unforeseen and violent jolt into the limelight must have been earth-shattering for Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic—two puck rock fans from the backwoods of rural Aberdeen, Washington. Their new drummer, Dave Grohl, had only been in the band precisely one year at the time of Nevermind’s release. His time toiling in the pits of the Washington DC hardcore scene couldn’t have prepared him for the tsunami that ensued post-Nevermind.
Creating a follow-up to such a landmark album would send most bands scurrying to the woodchipper with their instruments. The demands and expectations were profound. Nirvana were dealing with a lot of outside interference and pressure as they began writing and recording In Utero. Everyone wanted a piece of them; Kurt Cobain’s demeanour was beginning to resemble a rag doll being pulled every which way by a gaggle of arguing siblings.
Kurt’s newfound fame was at odds with his punk rock ethics. He began questioning his beliefs about music, its creation, the industry and celebrity, and his place within that machine. He once said, “I wanted to have the adoration of John Lennon but have the anonymity of Ringo Starr. I didn’t want to be a frontman. I just wanted to be back there and still be a rock and roll star at the same time.”
Whether or not his ever-spiralling drug problems and erratic behaviour were exacerbated by his sudden rocket to fame is hard to say. But when it came to being in the best place to begin work on Nevermind’s follow-up, one would get the impression that the chips were not stacked in his or the band’s favour, nor was it an ideal environment for them creatively.
And yet, like all great artists. Kurt channelled the chaos into stunning, visceral, life-affirming art. In retrospect, pouring every fibre of himself into the creative process was the only way he knew how to survive the upheaval surrounding him. Kurt’s path to his creative self was never closed off; his art and music were constants in his life, and his ability to access his creativity at all times was inextricably linked to his understanding of the world around him.
In Utero is a caustic, vital masterpiece of modern rock. It easily stands toe to toe with its predecessor and, for many, supersedes it. Its abrasive dark edge is, at times, frightening but always exhilarating. It’s an unsettling glimpse into the mind of a gifted artist struggling to make sense of the world around him. Laced throughout the album are moments of staggering beauty, like shafts of light through malignant storm clouds.
The opening song, “Serve The Servants”, is a profoundly personal, sarcastic rant, which is not unusual for Cobain; what is remarkable is the directness of his lyrics. Kurt often used metaphors and symbolism when writing, leaving his words open to interpretation. Here, Kurt lashes out at all negativity in his life with acid-tongued frankness. The opening refrain, “Teenage angst has paid off well; Now I’m bored and old,” refers to his newfound fame and wealth and how it has painted him into a corner.
Kurt says of his father, Don, “I tried hard to have a father, but instead, I had a dad.” His frustration with the press for constantly vilifying his wife Courtney Love as a horrible wife, mother, drug addict and detriment to Nirvana, “If she floats, then she is not a witch like we had thought.” With “Serve The Servants,” Kurt is unloading some pent-up bile right out of the gate. Ironically, his vitriol is set to a relatively upbeat and bouncy musical accompaniment, which adds a feeling of the absurd.
“Scentless Apprentice” follows; Dave Grohl wrote the song’s drum beat and guitar riff. All three members worked to refine the music, with Kurt writing the lyrics. Dave Grohl said of the song in 2010, “One of my favourite lines in a Nirvana song is fucking dark. I didn’t realize the weight of it until I sat in my house in Seattle playing the first mixes of In Utero. The line in ‘Scentless Apprentice’ where Kurt sings, ‘You can’t fire me because I quit.’ If there’s one line in any song that gives me the chills, it’s that one. Maybe all those things people wrote about him painted him into a corner that he couldn’t escape.”
“Heart-Shaped Box” was the album’s first single. Cobain wrote the song in early 1992. As legend has it, he forgot about it for a period but began working on it again when he and his wife, Courtney Love, moved to a new house in the Hollywood Hills. In a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone, Love said she overheard her husband working on the song’s central riff in a closet. Allegedly, she asked Cobain if she could use the riff for one of her songs, to which he answered: “Fuck you!” and closed the closet door.
Cobain talked about the song’s chorus, saying that the lyric “Hey, Wait, I’ve got a new complaint“ was about how the media perceived him. Biographer Charles R. Cross wrote that the line, “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black, has to be the most convoluted route any songwriter undertook in pop history to say ‘I love you.'”
“Rape Me” was written by Cobain on an acoustic guitar in Los Angeles in May 1991, when the band’s second album, Nevermind, was being mixed. Often interpreted as a commentary on fame, “Rape Me” was intended to be an anti-rape song. However, Kurt wrote the song’s bridge several months later with lyrics referencing the struggles Cobain and his wife, Courtney Love, faced with the media following Nirvana’s mainstream success, “My favourite inside source; I’ll kiss your open sores; Appreciate your concern; You’re gonna stink and burn.”
“Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” has an infectious sliding guitar riff and a pummelling loud/quiet dynamic. Kurt agonizingly wails, “I miss the comfort in being sad.” The gorgeous “Dumb” is a reflective acoustic track laden with pathos and a harrowing but beautiful sadness. Kurt’s lyrical imagery is powerful, each line exploding with symbolism and meaning, “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.” During the song’s outro, he sings “I think I’m dumb” repeatedly as guest cellist Kera Schaley weaves between his words.
“Very Ape” begins with a sharp, metallic-sounding guitar. The band punctuates the jagged sliding riff with urgent force. Kurt sings, “If you ever need anything, please don’t. Hesitate to ask someone else first. I’m too busy acting like I’m not naïve. I’ve seen it all; I was here first.”
“Milk It” is an incredible song; it ought to be. It’s a carbon copy of a Melvins song from their 1991 album Bullhead called “Its Shoved.” When asked about “Milk It”, Melvins’ frontman Buzz Osbourne said, “Of course I like that song. Of course, I like it because it’s a TOTAL ripoff of a song I wrote called “It’s Shoved.” It’s on our Bullhead record, which came out in ’91. Listen to both back to back, and then tell me if I’m crazy. Well, I am crazy, but not because of this song.”
Kurt never divulged the reasoning for lifting the music of “Its Shoved” from the Melvins and using it for “Milk It.” The Melvins and Buzz were always a significant influence on Kurt and Krist and were lifelong friends. Most likely, it was a sly tip of the hat and homage to one of their primary influences and Pacific Northwest compatriots. Whatever the case, it’s endearing to see in this overly litigious world, no court cases ensued.
“Pennyroyal Tea” is filled with vivid imagery. It was written by Cobain in 1990 in an Olympia, Washington, apartment he shared with Dave Grohl. “Dave and I were screwing around on a 4-track,” Cobain explained, “and I wrote that song in about thirty seconds. And I sat down for half an hour and wrote the lyrics.”
In a 1993 interview, Cobain gave greater insight into the song, saying it was about a person suffering from severe depression: “Penny royal tea is a herbal abortive,’ Cobain said. “I threw that in because I have so many friends who tried to use it, and it never worked. The song is about someone who’s beyond depressed and on their deathbed.”
Kurt references Leonard Cohen with the line, “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld; so I can sigh eternally.” Cohen’s penchant for introspective songs about death and his place in the universe affected Kurt. “That was my therapy when I was depressed and sick,” Cobain said. “I’d read things like Malloy Dies by Beckett or listen to Leonard Cohen, which would actually make it worse,” he laughs.
“Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” opens with squalls of feedback. Grohl and Novoselic lay the rhythmic foundations with potent force as Cobain’s ferocious blasts of guitar rage on top. Kurt intentionally sounds jaded and disinterested, delivering his lines like a man worn out and on the edge. It’s a thrilling song full of depth, menace and energy.
“Tourette’s” is a one-minute-thirty-six-second blast of acerbic punk rock. Kurt’s lyrics are barely decipherable through his crazed, manic drawl. The song takes the short, sharp punk ethos of Nevermind’s “Territorial Pissings” and ups the ante considerably.
“All Apologies” closes the album. The song’s beautifully melodic guitar line is instantly memorable and iconic. In 2005, Dave Grohl recalled hearing the song for the first time, “I remember hearing it and thinking, ‘God, this guy has such a beautiful sense of melody, I can’t believe he’s screaming all the time.'” Kurt Cobain did have a profound ability to write a devastating pop melody. Even when thrashing through Nirvana’s wildest passages, Cobain always imbued his songs with masterful hooks.
When Nirvana turned the volume down, those sophisticated melodies were laid bare. Nowhere was this more evident than on their legendary MTV Unplugged performance. “All Apologies” is a precursor to the brilliance of their Unplugged set. It’s a beautifully arranged masterpiece; Grohls’ lightly tapped drums and Novoselic’s melodic bass breeze along, supporting Kurt’s simple but beautiful guitar hook. Kera Schaley’s cello binds all the parts together like a balm. The cyclical “All in all is all we are” mantra at the song’s end is both hypnotic and a fitting end to a stunning album.
In Utero was Cobain’s final masterpiece before his death just seven months after the album’s release. The live Unplugged album, recorded in November of 1993, rightly became iconic, but for different reasons. That album, released weeks after Kurt’s death, captured the profound loss and bewilderment surrounding his suicide; listening to the band stripped bare of the usual walls of distortion, delivering acoustic renditions of their material (and some choice covers) seemed impossibly fitting in that moment.
In Utero was the band’s last true creative outburst. And it still sounds shockingly vibrant and visceral. In their short time, Nirvana released one iconic album after the next, never faltering, never wilting under immense pressure. They kept their art pure when the world around the was anything but. In Utero is a fitting epitaph to an incredible band.
Nirvana's Third Album In Utero Is Available On Vinyl In-Store & Online In Luca Records & Decks.
Written By Clive Barnes.