Credit: Charles Peterson
If the new The Batman movie has taught us anything, it’s that Nirvana still holds relevance thirty years later, and why wouldn’t they? Underneath the thick layer of grunge, Kurt Cobain wrote catchy pop tunes that are sure to hook anyone in. His band’s knockout album Nevermind champions this, laying claim to the likes of Smells Like Teen Spirit, In Bloom, Come As You Are, Lithium and Something In The Way (Batman’s favorite). Nevermind doesn’t have Heart-Shaped Box, Pennyroyal Tea or All Apologies, though—no, that’s In Utero.
But In Utero wasn’t nearly as popular as Nevermind, selling 7.69 million certified copies worldwide while Nevermind sold more than double at 18.2668 million certified copies worldwide. In Utero was a much riskier album by comparison—its production was much more primitive (with the band even using broken equipment) and many of the tracks were much less commercial than its predecessor. In fact, Walmart and K-Mart refused to even stock the record until revisions were made to some of the track titles and the album art. While Nevermind is the album that most people think of when Cobain comes to mind, In Utero is the album that better represents him. Capitalizing on his punk roots, Cobain fully embraced a more primitive and much harsher sound with the record, which transcended from the sonics to the lyrics. Where Nevermind fails to paint a picture of how negatively Cobain saw himself and the rest of the world, In Utero soars, graduating from lines such as “I love myself better than you” to “Forever in debt to your priceless advice.” In the words of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, “The music tends to be an expression of one's darker moments,” and In Utero is a much more complete expression of Cobain than Nevermind.
From the very first track the album makes clear it’s going to be much less pleasant than Nevermind, exploding into a distorted, noisy, feedback-ridden chord after a short drumstick countdown on Serve The Servants. After going into its more pop-esque melody, a short beat drop is followed by Cobain launching into a guitar solo played on a broken amplifier to even further evoke a primitive punk rock feel. The next track, Scentless Apprentice, is even heavier and more unpleasant. The song opens with a drum beat followed by very heavy chords that sound almost as if they’re ascending. Cobain repeatedly screams “Go away” during the chorus with a heavy distortion effect applied in post and the track ends with this as well. The much more melodic and radio-friendly Heart-Shaped Box plays next and is the song where Cobain’s personal anguish is most apparent, especially in its chorus: “Hey!/Wait!/I’ve got a new complaint!/Forever in debt to your priceless advice.” The guitar distortion effect and anger-filled vocals that kick in with Rape Me’s chorus explode onto the listener after the song’s soft opening verse. Especially powerful is the final part of the song when Cobain screams perhaps the most angrily he ever has, fueled by his utter disdain for rapists. The album then generally repeats the formula the first three tracks followed of noisy song, painful song and radio-friendly song with some variation: Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle (noisy/radio-friendly) to Dumb (radio-friendly); Very Ape (noisy) to Milk It (painful) to Pennyroyal Tea (radio-friendly); Radio Friendly Unit Shifter (noisy) to Tourette’s (painful) to All Apologies (radio-friendly). All Apologies in particular comes after two tracks that prominently feature guitar feedback looping and borderline unintelligible screaming; the melancholy opening riff of the final track is perhaps the closest to a feeling of nirvana that Cobain was ever able to invoke in his listeners.
As the sonics became harsher the lyrics became more confrontational. Cobain was no stranger to the type of lyrical content In Utero exhibits but tonally it is much heavier than Nevermind or anything else he had written. In Bloom’s sing-along chorus is much catchier and more upbeat than Serve The Servants yet both are vaguely directed towards those who fail to see the band beyond their catchy tunes: “He’s the one/Who likes all our pretty songs/And he likes to sing along/And he likes to shoot his gun/But he knows not what it means” versus “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old.” Cobain had written love songs for Nirvana’s past records (with some examples being About A Girl, Breed and Aneurysm) but nothing ever like Heart-Shaped Box. Rather than having a positive framing, Heart-Shaped Box is about Cobain’s continued love for his wife despite her torment and abuse: “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black.” Ironically, early iterations of the band’s final song You Know You’re Right would contain the line “Don’t think I really love her.” Likewise, Cobain was no stranger to writing the politically-charged songs for which punk rock was known. Songs such as Negative Creep, Polly and Been A Son evoke strong feminist messages while the liner notes for Incesticide say “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*ck alone! Don't come to our shows and don't buy our records.” Nothing Cobain had written prior to In Utero was truly representative of how extreme he actually felt about his political beliefs, however. Cobain wrote in his journal that “John Lennon has been my idol all my life but he’s dead wrong about revolution… find a representative of gluttony or oppression and blow the motherf*ckers [sic] head off” and this attitude is heavily ingrained into In Utero. Rape Me, Cobain’s most direct song, features the line “You’re gonna stink and burn,” Milk It attacks right wingers with the line “Angel left wing, right wing, broken wing” and Radio Friendly Unit Shifter says to “Hate your enemies/Save, save your friends/Find, find your place/Speak, speak the truth.” This all culminates in the closing line of All Apologies: it reminds us to not ignore all of the facets that complete us, that “All in all is all we are.” This line is the perfect message to end the album after its exploration of abusive relationships and the harm of political compromise.
Credit: Charles Peterson
Ditching the clean production of Nevermind and diving headfirst into his punk roots liberated Cobain and allowed him to write his most defining album. In Utero’s more abrasive sound and politically-charged lyrics harken back to the punk scene that the Sex Pistols championed while the pop melodies reminiscent of The Beatles remained. In Utero’s greater emphasis on these attributes helped evolve the record past what Nevermind had already established and led to an album much more representative of what Cobain was really about.
Image 3 and 4 credit Charles Peterson.