It’s hard to believe that the early 1990s are now a full generation plus in the rearview. One of the definitive albums of that era for any music fan is Nirvana’s Nevermind (DGC). Whether you like the band or the album or not, the impact they made with that album is still sending shockwaves being felt today. What about the band themselves? How do you top a masterpiece and a hit album you never wanted? Well if you were Kurt Cobain, you know the answer is you don’t even try. With their follow-up In Utero (also DGC), Cobain undoubtedly felt like they had made an album closer to what they were originally aiming for in their journey as a group: the vibe of raw punk, but with the sophisticated writing of great classic rock. It was a dichotomy that made the band so special and loved by both fans and critics. Of course not knowing at the time it would be their final studio work, but In Utero gives a pretty fair idea of what was possible for the “biggest band in the world” in 1993.
Coming off of the meteoric rise following Nevermind’s release, the band had intended to bounce right back with another record the next year, but once you have a mainstream hit, it’s hard to say no to tours, TV appearances, and all that comes with it. Originally demoed in 1992 and recorded and mixed mostly in about three weeks, the now well know controversy about the rough and non-commercial Steve Albini production was a lot to do about nothing. Clearly, the record industry machine that Cobain always feared aligning with got in the heads of the band as the label and the band argued about releasing the album as is. There were questions about the sonics, but the band had as much vision and authority as Albini on the choices of mix and tracking. Who would mess with an Albini produced album or a band knowing what they wanted? Well, record label suits would try, and ultimately Scott Litt (R.E.M., Hole, New Order, Incubus) remixed the singles ‘Heart Shaped Box’, ‘All Apologies’, and the abandoned single for ‘Penny Royal Tea’. Those tracks are definitely a little more smooth and shiny than the rest, but ultimately are great and don’t diminish the end result.
An album of musical Jekyll and Hyde moments that really was at the soul of what the band was trying to do, there are many great songs here, and arguably as many as Nevermind. ‘Severe The Servants’, ‘Rape Me’, ‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle’, ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’, ‘Very Ape’ and ‘Tortures’ have all the ragged energy Cobain craved, but also the writing chops that showed his greatness. ‘Dumb’ is about as close to a Beatles song could be for the 1990s. The big hits, buoyed by videos and live performances bolster the album to another hit, but ‘Rape Me’, might be the best song here, although possibly too triggering if it came out today. Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic played Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman to Kurt’s Keith/Mick/Bowie/Lennon ministrations. Perhaps the original mixes don’t quite shine enough on the other two-thirds of the power trio, but the chops and performances are there. Lyrically the album has a bounty of brilliant lyrics with commentaries on society, and Kurt’s musings on fame and the fallout from it.
In Utero was more than a worthy of the impossible to replicate the success of its predecessor. It certainly was made in the spirit closer to what the band wanted to be remembered for, against the rest of their discography up to that point. Hell, even the b-sides and unreleased tracks for this one are arguably great yet, underloved (thank you ‘Marigold, ‘I Hate Myself And Want To Die’). It’s fun to imagine what could have been potentially in the albums to follow this one, but in the meantime let’s appreciate the difficulty the band faced making this one, and the end result, which still holds up.