Their rocket trajectory is the stuff of legend. By 1990, Nirvana were a scrappy young band from Washington State, with a handful of releases on local label Sub Pop. On the strength of the demos for their next album, Nirvana inked with DGC, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group, and released their major label debut, Nevermind, in 1991. Everything changed overnight. Their combination of pop hooks, punk ethos and radio-ready production connected with millions, especially after MTV started playing the anarchy-at-the-pep-rally video for lead single “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Soon Nevermind unseated the King of Pop Michael Jackson's Dangerous from the top of the Billboard chart, and the sensitive, reluctant Cobain was anointed as the anti-hero “Voice of a Generation,” a position he neither wanted nor was prepared to serve. In response, he retreated into a haze of drug addiction and a new relationship (and ultimately a marriage) with Courtney Love, who would give birth to their only child, daughter Francis Bean Cobain, in 1993.
In Utero was the Seattle band’s response to their newfound fame — and they were deeply over it. Aimed at recovering the indie cred they lost (or at least perceived they had lost) with the global success of Nevermind, In Utero finds the conflicted group — at once fiercely independent, but with dreams of rock stardom — correcting course to a more organic sound. It’s Nirvana at their most Nirvana. And Nirvana was out for revenge.
Ironically enough, Cobain and Co. accomplished that by dialing up the same songwriting formula behind Nevermind, on which Cobain, Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic combined punk rock ethos with pop hooks into clever, but clearly derivative, new sound (the Beatles here, the Ramones there). In Utero took both sides of that recipe to their extremes. It’s the most punk; the most pop.
"It'll be more raw with some songs and more candy pop on some of the others,” Cobain told Rolling Stone before the LP’s release. “It won't be as one-dimensional [as Nevermind]."
It’s artier, too — the songs are full of references to shit, ejaculation, mother’s milk, heartbreak, cancer, fame, fatherhood, broken family dynamics, and more. But these 12 tracks are threaded together with some of the band’s poppiest songwriting, often hiding in plain sight, wrapped in knife-at-your-neck guitar screeches, avalanche drumming, and aftershock bass. Some are downright frightening, often while ecstatically beautiful.
To capture this sound, Cobain and Co. turned to Steve Albini, who, in many ways, is the polar opposite of Butch Vig, the producer who helped bring Nevermind to life (and to the charts). Over a two-week period in February 1993, the band and Albini — famed in the underground for his work with the Pixies, the Breeders, PJ Harvey, the Jesus Lizard, and others —retreated to Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls, Minnesota to record In Utero. They kept a rigorous, round-the-clock recording style, and sometimes moved instruments to different rooms to capture the perfect sound, reportedly recording Grohl’s drums with 30 mics.
After the final product was delivered to DGC, rumors began circulating that the label might not release the album in its original state, concerned it wasn’t commercially viable. Albini declined to alter the album further, and, under pressure, Nirvana ultimately allowed R.E.M. producer Scott Litt to make minor changes to the sound and remix the singles “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies.” It worked: In Utero entered the Billboard 200 chart at No. 1 and received critical acclaim as a drastic musical departure from Nevermind.
“Heart-Shaped Box” is a dark love letter through the prism of child cancer: “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black,” Cobain rages before exploding in “Hey! Wait!” chorus. Its dark video (how about that Jesus, wearing a Santa Cap, being crucified in the field of poppies?), directed by Anton Corbijn, two awards, including best alternative video at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards. “All Apologies,” the tender closer he later dedicated to his wife and daughter, meanwhile, finds Cobain hushed and introspective at first, then erupting, “In the sun / In the sun / I feel as one.”
But it’s the other more abstract, caustic songs that resonate most 25 years later. Opener “Serve the Servants” is like a Buddy Holly song wrapped in rage and feedback. “Scentless Apprentice” sounds like the Smoke Monster from Lost out for blood. “Very Ape” is one minute and 56 seconds of rampaging punk crunch (watch this one live on YouTube, featuring second guitarist Pat Smear, who joined the band to flesh out their new sound live on tour). And “Milk It” is just scary—unwinding guitar meets some of the loudest, chest-quivering drums ever recorded, as Cobain’s guitar buzzsaws. He mumbles, “I am my own parasite / I don't need a host to live / We feed off of each other / We can share our endorphins,” before unleashing one of the loudest Nirvana choruses in their catalog: “Doll steak! / Test meat! / Look, on the bright side is suicide.” It's their quiet-loud-quiet dynamic on steroids.
On “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle,” Cobain likens himself to Seattle-born actress Frances Farmer, who was committed to an insane asylum against her will and reportedly underwent shock treatments and a lobotomy. In the song, Cobain takes aim at Vanity Fair writer Lynn Hirschberg, whose negative story about him and Love resulted in the couple’s daughter, also named Frances, being taken by Child Protected Services. “She'll come back as fire, to burn all the liars,” Cobain rails, “And leave a blanket of ash on the ground.”
“Pennyroyal Tea,” an older song written in 1990, is an acoustic track that rises to a rocking yearn. It's about an herbal abortive, Cobain admitted, suggesting his own struggles with a stomach condition may have also influenced the track.
Then there’s “Radio-Friendly Unit Shifter,” perhaps the biggest middle finger to the Music Industrial Complex that gave Cobain so much grief. Ironically enough, it’s catchy as hell, but slathered in screeching feedback. “What is wrong with me,” Cobain repeats. “I love you for what I am not / I did not want what I have got.”
The album wasn’t as cathartic for the band themselves. As their In Utero tour slogged on, Cobain slipped further into addiction, overdosing in Rome. He entered rehab in Los Angeles as his relationship with Love strained. Finally, he hopped the back fence, flew to Seattle and slipped into the city’s then-rampant heroin underground. On April 5, 1994, he was found dead.