By Rick Polo (Editor-in–Chief)
“Teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old,” cracked Kurt Cobain on “Serve the Servants,” the lead off track to In Utero, Nirvana’s third and final studio album. A glimpse of the disillusionment Cobain felt with his new found stardom, as he was beginning to feel the rug being swept out from beneath his feet, and began questioning his place in the music world.
In the short span of two years, Nirvana, as well as their subsequent Seattle contemporaries, exploded from underground darlings to all-out rock gods. Propelled by the success of singles like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Lithium” Nirvana’s sophomore effort Nevermind, became an over night success and game changer. Not since the Beatles had a group been so defining to an entire generation. The pressure took it’s toll on Cobain, and as he began to crack, a seminal masterpiece rose.
Rawer and grittier than Nevermind, In Utero brought Nirvana back to their noisy roots, with minimal production and Gen-X cynicism strung all throughout. As the band garnered a more pop-oriented audience, their goal was the dismiss their given status and return to what mattered most to them; raw unbridled conscious punk rock. Enter producer, former Big Black guitarist Steve Albini. His background in gritty and noisy post-punk was the perfect match for what In Utero was to be. It resulted with fan approval and record company dismay.
Albini stated of the label’s reaction to In Utero in a recent interview with Vish Khanna’s Kreative Kontrol:
“All of the people that were carping at the band from the outside about what a mistake they’d made with this record, that pretty accurately represented what they wanted to do with their music… all of those people are parasites. They weren’t involved in making the record. They want, somehow or another, to claim authorship of the creative output of these other people who are actually doing the heavy lifting for their career. I can’t have any respect for somebody like that, who’s not involved in the creative process but then decides that they wanna snipe at it from the outside and manipulate people into doing things to suit them. Fuck every one of those people.”
The album kicks off with “Serve the Servants,” a song dismissing just about everything that has come into Cobain’s life up to that point, including his newly found fame. From the, the smashing “Scentless Apprentice” finds the band at their noisiest since Bleach, with an incredibly pounding beat from drummer Dave Grohl. From there, the ironic hit single “Heart-Shaped Box” and the controversial “Rape Me” up the sardonic tone culminating in the fifth track, “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle,” hinting at the mainstream’s exploitation of the Seattle “grunge” scene.
Side two of In Utero begins on more somber notes. The calmer “Dumb” begins to shed light on Cobain’s vulnerability and difficulty coping with life at this point. “I think I’m dumb, maybe just happy,” he sings, noting his confusion. “Very Ape” and “Milk It” not only crank up the rage, but start to spiral into dark territory. Hints of his addition, depression and suicidal tendencies begin to surface. Despite this, Cobain had a knack for clever poetic communicating, turning even his darkest moments into thought-provoking highlights.
“Obituary birthday. Your scent is still here in my place of recovery,” finishes Cobain on “Milk It.”
More vulnerability continues with “Pennyroyal Tea” before cranking up the noise, angst and sarcasm again for “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” and “tourette’s.” Finally, In Utero concludes with “All Apologies,” the final sobering note that many of us share our last memories of Cobain with. Summed up in Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance just month’s before Cobain’s death, the song serves as the final encore for a brief but powerful fire that torched the landscape of modern music.
20 years since its release, In Utero has gone on to sell over 5 million copies worldwide and is often cited as one of the best albums of the 90’s. As the 20th anniversary of this masterpiece looms, a massive reissue containing three discs of music and one DVD is set for release on Sept. 24 through Universal Records. The reissue will consist of a rematered version of the album, rare demos and B-sides, rehearsal outtakes and a DVD and audio companion of their 1993 MTV Live & Loud performance. Full details can be seen here.
However, surviving Nirvana members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic have dismissed the reissue, claiming only to be a money grab for the record label and certain parties.
Nonetheless, In Utero has stood the test of time, remaining a favorite for fans of the era as well as past and future generation of alternative and rock fans. “Heart-Shaped Box” still dominates rock radio and, interestingly, is making its way onto classic rock formats as well. Nirvana’s last stand remains one of strength and integrity, serving its servants, as an unrelenting and uncompromising snub of everything it was supposed to be.