I was two years old when Nirvana’s final studio album ‘In Utero’ hit shelves in 1993, but since falling in love with the band when I was 18; it remains one of my all time favourite albums and is somehow completely relevant and impactful to me even today, regardless of its release date. Why is it then, that of the three studio albums Nirvana released, this one stands out to me? At this point in Kurt Cobain’s career, he was often critical of his own success. Not always critical of this particular album, but of the experience and his personal position as a successful “rock star”; various interviews saw Kurt toying with the idea of quitting Nirvana altogether to join Courtney Love’s Hole. Criticisms of the album at the time included poor reception to the obscenity within the album, particularly the song “Rape Me”. Now it is often perceived by certain indie elitists as the over-produced bastard child of Nirvana and their corporate masters, undoubtedly a result of the huge success of Nevermind. The album strikes me however as perhaps Nirvana’s most punk of moments; reeking of whimsically sick sarcasm and genuinely dark and disturbing imagery. A huge “fuck you” to the music industry and what they expected from their new golden cash cow, Nirvana. I payed £4 for this CD, practically snatching it from the shelf; here’s why:
Serve the Servants: This catchy opener pitches ‘In Utero’ and its entire sentiment excellently. The bitter sweet juxtaposition of an almost sickly pleasant melody and nihilistic, cartoonish lyrics makes for a baffling but fantastically entertaining listen. The average “consumer” listener will hear the catchy tune and tap their feet, those who listen to Cobain’s lyrics will do the same; but also notice the comical, ironic effect of the words Cobain so lazily drones:
“Teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old”. Along with the trademark heavy distortion of Nirvana’s guitar(s), the song evolves from a joke about media consumption and production, to an almost scary portrait of Cobain’s real role as a musician. This sense of surreal pleasantry peaks as Cobain repeats the monotonic chorus “Serve the Servants”: a guitar playing zombie for the masses.
Scentless Apprentice: A nod to a novel I have not read, Scentless Apprentice is in so many ways brutal. Grohl’s drumming opens the track in a sporadic and almost frantic fashion, clueing listeners into the gnarly guitar chug that will dominate the next four(ish) minutes. Perhaps the heaviest song on the album, Scentless Apprentice’s lyrics are disturbing to say the least; reference to infancy, wet nursing and the scent of semen all contribute to a brilliantly jagged, frightening sounding piece of music. The screamed chorus’ “Go away”, drowning in feedback, secures this song as one of Nirvana’s loudest songs.
Heart Shaped Box: An obvious single, Heart Shaped Box is, perhaps more than Teen Spirit, the perfect Nirvana song. No other song in Nirvana’s catalogue sounds more like Nirvana than this. Catchy, rumbling bass and guitar; a melodically enchanting piece of work built upon the powerhouse drumming of Dave Grohl. Lyrically observing his own relationship with Courtney Love, Cobain’s writing was never more poignant. “Broken hymen of your highness I’m left black, throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back.” Vaginal, repulsive and melancholic: these metaphors are as poetic as Nirvana gets. As dark as it may be, this track is a single; and a fantastic one at that, one of the reasons it sums up Nirvana so well for me is that it is engaging pop music, not out of place on a car radio. The track sells itself to the general public, as its twisted little lyrical nuances drift easily over their heads. The accompanying minimalist solo also helps to establish the Nirvana trademark.
Rape Me: The opening power chords to this song may sound familiar. They are. Smells Like Teen Spirit was (and still is) an enormous hit, with good reason. Rape Me parodies the track hilariously. The song perhaps references the pressures of producers and the demands they could have made of Nirvana in the studio to produce another hit like Teen Spirit. Nirvana, in entertaining fashion, obliged. As the pressures of studio and producer demands “Rape” Nirvana’s creative rights; Cobain responds by ensuring that this recycled former chart buster will never be played before 9pm due to its explicit lyrics.
Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle: This song title references a once famous Hollywood actress, she was institutionalised. Themes of illness and alienation are intensified on this track, “I miss the comfort in being sad”, conjuring a clearer picture of a warped yet familiar mindset. Once again the ‘quiet/loud/quiet’ formula makes this song a hard rocking, grunge loving joy to listen to at full volume and one particular chunk of riffage midway through the song really ties it up as a slow head hanging, guitar swinging favourite for lovers of the genre.
Dumb: Another track featuring lyrics referencing alienation, drug use and the human psyche (it’s shortcomings primarily). This song is one of the few respites from the skull crunching, distorted, beautiful noise of In Utero. A merry acoustic sounding guitar accompanies a stoned sounding Cobain as relaxed if not dreary violins coat the song in a layer more fitting to In Utero’s negativity and genuine sense of sadness. Dreary, but encapsulating.
Very Ape: In two minutes this song absolutely rips apart the moment of rest provided by Dumb, and tears out into more frenetic and enthusiastic noise. A song about irony and being ‘hip’ in the eyes of peers, Very Ape’s self reflective sense of scrutiny is as brief as it is brutally honest.
Milk It: The drumming in this song is phenomenal. Rhythmically, it stops and starts in an intense manner, a sense of fear and urgency accompany the songs garage/band practice feel due to Cobain’s mid song guitar fiddling and at one point chuckling the start of a chorus. More explicit and vulgar lyrics make this another rough and punk track: “Her milk is my shit, my shit is her milk”. It’s difficult (perhaps deliberately) to derive meaning or coherence from a song so manically sporadic, that’s how the song feels, and it’s most certainly how the song sounds. Perfect for smashing stage equipment.
Pennyroyal Tea: Pennyroyal Tea is yet another prime example of Nirvana and Cobain’s typical song writing. Everything about the song screams Nirvana. More lyrics concerning illness and the treatment of sicknesses along with yet another single-release worthy hook all contribute to what sounds like a song recorded live in just one take. The beauty of so many of these songs is that they do sound as Grohl once said like “Nirvana in the room”. Pennyroyal Tea is no exception.
Radio Friendly Unit Shifter: There is a moment early in the screeching introduction to this song in which a cow may or may not be heard “mooing” somewhere amongst the distortion of the track; this song is by far the most outlandish and amusing of the tracks on In Utero. The title of the song further parodies the band’s position as a commercially successful rock group and the hilarity of studio expectations of the band. The song is most certainly not Radio Friendly; it screeches and growls where it should be silent, and flat out refuses to be what it says on the tin. Along with the songs offensively distorted guitars, lyrics constantly second guess listeners, steeped in irony Cobain yells: “This had nothing to do with what you think, if you ever think at all.” Radio friendly? Hardly. Unit Shifting? Yes.
Tourette’s: Another brief blast of noise; the only discernible lyrics within Tourette’s onslaught of fantastic thrash/grunge are the words “Moderate Rock!” sarcastically slapped onto the start of the track. The lyric book accompanying the album merely features the words “Cufk, Tish, Sips”. Fuck, shit and Piss. Brilliant.
All Apologies: Immortalized by Cobain’s suicide; All Apologies has become iconic as an unofficial suicide note. It fits; the song is haunting in its sound and lyrically through the repetition of an apology. The most melancholic song on the album; it closes In Utero beautifully and in hindsight quite tragically. That and it’s seriously pleasing melodically. It’s All Apologies that leaves a lasting mark from the album, and maybe even Nirvana. Cobain’s intensive and increasingly serious drug use had almost killed him before, this song of self blame and in some ways self pity is a befitting goodbye, tragically hip and ironic all at once.
Nirvana, in the production of In Utero, were expected by many to produce an album equalling the commercial success and acclaim of Nevermind. Although Nevermind may always be the band’s defining album in the eyes of many, it is In Utero that saw the band release some of their most punk and heavy tracks under the scrutiny of a much more demanding audience both corporate and public. In Utero seems to spit in the face of the ones who love it so much, and in doing so, retains what makes Nirvana so appealing: a humour loving, guitar smashing, punk attitude. Under the enormous boot of Simon Cowell and other media giants, the message in In Utero remains positively essential to young musicians who are being told what they should and should not produce musically today. Fuck, shit and piss indeed.