We’re taking a look back a classic album celebrating its 25th anniversary, to see if it has aged like fine wine or rotted like a heap of stinking garbage—Nirvana’s follow up to the 1991 breakthrough, game-changing album Nevermind, In Utero.
Thinking back on the record, I remember the stories behind it as much as the music itself. How the band, unhappy with the polished sound of megahit Nevermind, coupled with the angst of becoming overnight sensations with legions of fans they (and especially Kurt Cobain) deemed mindless sheep, actively sought to distance themselves from the casual, bandwagon listeners by hiring producer Steve Albini, former frontman for noise rockers Big Black, who was known for a production style that resulted in loud, abrasive records.
Nirvana wanted to distance themselves from the safe, sanitized version of themselves they heard on Nevermind, and Steve Albini and In Utero accomplished that in spades. So well, in fact, that R.E.M. producer Scott Litt ended up being brought in to tweak the album’s sound and remix the singles Heart-Shaped Box and All Apologies, as rumors circulated that the record label hated the album, stating that Albini’s production made it “unlistenable.” There were rumors that it may not even be released at all, though that ultimately proved not to be the case.
Still, the question remained: the legacy of the album was clear in my mind, but I hadn’t listened to the whole thing in ages. How would the music itself hold up?
The answer is…incredibly well.
I put on the album, and as Serve the Servants kicked in, my first thought was, “My god, those drums.” (Quick tidbit about me—I’m a total whore for a good drum sound. If I hear a snare tone I like, I can easily forget to listen to the rest of the instruments.) Then I realized the whole band sounded much like the drums: thundering, bombastic, and just….thick, despite Cobain’s guitar retaining its twang on the high end.
“Teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old.”
So begins the first verse, and sets a tone seen through most of the record. Sarcasm, cynicism, and disdain, both for the people Cobain now had to answer to at the record label as well as the people responsible for putting him in that position to begin with. You can hear it clearly in the lyrics, but even musically it comes through. The dissonance, ear-piercing feedback, and shrieking, screaming vocals in tracks like Scentless Apprentice is peppered throughout the record, culminating in the one-two punch of what are arguably In Utero‘s two most challenging listens—the feedback-laced Radio-Friendly Unit Shifter, and the near-unintelligible punk blast of Tourette’s. But then, almost as a reward for making it through an album full of venom and broken glass, we’re given a gem.
Along with the album’s midway point, Dumb, All Apologies stands as a stark contrast to the rest of In Utero’s utter cacophony. Dumb and All Apologies are both restrained, softer songs (relatively speaking, of course), the latter being a somewhat peaceful way to end such a loud, chaotic album. And therein lies the dichotomy.
Kurt never wanted to be a household name. I read an interview with him once where he said (I’m paraphrasing slightly), “I don’t care about selling out stadiums and playing for thousands of screaming fans. If I could make my living playing music, and just make enough money to pay the rent and live off macaroni and cheese, I would be happy.” The thing is, he didn’t write the kinds of songs that only drew modest crowds and achieved meager record sales. He wrote catchy songs that, for all the raw, visceral abrasiveness, still had melodic hooks that could stick in your head for days, and lyrics that resonated with a generation of people. The music was destined to grow bigger than Cobain ever could’ve imagined, and almost certainly bigger than he ever wanted.
All of which makes In Utero a compelling listen, but even without the backstory and drama behind it, it’s just a good, raw rock album that easily stands the test of time.
Listen to the album here: