Nirvana released their final studio album, In Utero 20 years ago today. It’s getting to a time when we could start thinking about a few 20th anniversaries for the band – the release of the seminal MTV Unplugged album or the anniversary of Kurt’s death, but I felt looking back here will make for a more positive experience.
I have to confess, at first, I just didn’t get the hype. I was all about the metal, the faster, louder and more aggressive the better. On first listen that really wasn’t what I got from Nirvana, it was far too poppy for my tastes. But I remember exactly when this changed. The 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. In amongst some classic performances from the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Black Crowes up popped Nirvana to do ‘Lithium’. Right there, during that 5 minutes, I got it.
They, almost instantly, became my band, my Beatles, my Zeppelin. Kurt was Jim Morrison and Hendrix and Jagger and whoever else you could think of. It was a spell-binding performance full of energy, anger, passion and angst. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that this performance changed my life, starting with the music I listened to, the music I played, even the way I dressed. You can check out that performance at the end of the article.
By this time the band had two studio albums out – you can check out Paul’s thoughts on Nevermind here – and there were a host of bootlegs and demos about so I was able to work my way through them as well as getting into bands like Mudhoney, Jesus Lizard, the Pixies and others of a similar ilk. But the buildup to the release of In Utero was fantastic. The anticipation between me and my friends reached fever pitch as we tracked magazines and MTV News for titbits and rumours. Much debate about leaked album titles like Verse Chorus Verse and I Hate Myself & Want to Die led to us trying to guess what direction the album would take. And then the album hit.
In Utero was a departure from the previous album. Where Nevermind felt like a convergence, a place where rock and pop would meet in the space of a 3 minute song, this felt like a contrast of styles and at times, a battle of wills. Whether this represented what was obviously an internal torment Kurt was feeling at the time we’ll never know but In Utero seemed to be full of contradictions. From the apparent rage in ‘Tourette’s’ to the sheer beauty of ‘All Apologies’ and the ire of ‘Scentless Apprentice’ to the melancholy of ‘Dumb’, the album doesn’t allow the listener to settle into a rhythm. In a way it harked back to the Bleach album in that it felt a lot more raw, almost jagged, where Nevermind was smooth and rounded but lyrically you could hear the change and the maturity in Kurt’s writing. The subject matter – parenthood, success – could also only have come about at this stage of his and the bands journey.
The opening line of the album in ‘Serve the Servants’, “Teenage angst has paid off well…” seemed to set out the album’s stall, a belligerence towards the music business. Ironically, this is one of the more radio-friendly tracks on the album, as is ‘Heart Shaped Box’ which was the album’s lead single. Sandwiched between them is Scentless Apprentice’, a raw, detuned throwback that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Bleach. Next up, the controversial ‘Rape Me’. Written by Kurt to be an anti-rape anthem, this borrows heavily from the sound of breakthrough song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and continues the dark themes of the album.
Next, ‘Frances Farmer Will Have her Revenge on Seattle’, inspired by the life of fellow Washington native, actress Frances Farmer. A successful actress in the late ’30s and early ’40s, Farmer was instituionalised several times throughout her life due to mental illness. It’s possible Kurt felt a kinship both through location and his own, well-documented struggles. ‘Dumb’ introduces Kera Schaley on the cello and is the first truly stripped back moment on the album. Following on are the double hit of ‘Very Ape’ and ‘Milk It’. The latter of the two is one of, if not the heaviest tracks on the album, and again closer to Bleach than Nevermind. ‘Very Ape’ is one of the more straightforward tracks, with a catchy riff and some quality Grohl drumming.
‘Pennyroyal Tea’, a song about a herbal abortive, was to go on and become one of the iconic performances of the band’s MTV Unplugged show. Rumoured to have backing vocals from Kurt’s wife Courtney Love, a simple song and despite the subject matter it’s musically one of the lightest tracks on the album. A dig at the music business and maybe the music press too, ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’ is nigh on 5 minutes of Kurt at his most vitriolic. The pounding rhythm section and Kurt’s delivery of the lyrics leave no doubt that they’re not happy. Contrast this to ‘Tourette’s’, the next track which just sounds like the band having a thrash. A 90 second punk track that demands it be played as loud as possible. Album closer, ‘All Apologies’, is just magnificent. On an album full of cracking tracks this is head and shoulders above, a true moment of genius.
So, back 20 years ago, my friends and I loved it. We played it to death, we learned the songs and bought tickets to a show that ultimately never happened. I remember though that at the time I found an awful lot of the album really quite sad. Being in a band myself back then we dreamt of success, touring the world and here was my hero and he seemed to hate it. Retrospectively you can look at the lyrics of almost all the songs on here and see a link to Kurt’s trials and tribulations but he was at pains to point out at the time that this wasn’t a personal album. But it was all the album that we had hoped for and, twenty years on, I don’t think it’s aged.
Since then, we’ve had the Foo Fighters, we’ve even had a Beatle taking Kurt’s spot. I think, and I’m sure Kurt hoped, that it did scare some people away but I still think this is a genuinely great album. Nowhere near as polished as its predecessor but then it was never meant to be.
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