To celebrate its 20th anniversary on Sept. 14, here’s our track-by-track look back at Nirvana’s classic third studio album, 1993’s “In Utero.”
Nirvana, and especially frontman Kurt Cobain, was hardly the first rock ‘n’ roll band to hate being loved. Happy as the trio undoubtably was over the game-changing success of 1991’s “Nevermind,” Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl were, like so many of their predecessors, a bit freaked out by the level of adoration (including a wholly unexpected mainstream pop crossover) and by media attention that flipped from fawning to endlessly intrusive, especially into Cobain’s drug use and his marriage to Courtney Love. So when Nirvana went in to make 1993’s “In Utero” it wanted to strip away some of the polish and re-embrace its abrasive punk rock roots.
After a brief courtship with producer Jack Endino, the group entered Minnesota’s isolated Pachyderm Studio in the middle of winter (February 1993) to spend a tight 13 days recording and mixing with noted minimalist Steve Albini.
The sessions were productive; the drama came afterwards, when DGC Records and Gold Mountain, Nirvana’s management, were critical of the results, leading to some acrimonious media back-and-forth between all parties and the group’s ultimate decision to have Scott Litt remix the two songs that would be released as singles — “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies” — back in Seattle.
All ended relatively well; while some reviewers noted that “In Utero” was no “Nevermind” (which was kind of the idea), the 12-song set — recently expanded for a lavish 20th anniversary edition — was a hit.
Released Sept. 14, “In Utero” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album and has been certified five-times platinum. It’s also a fixture on all sorts of best album lists and, 20 years on, hardly sounds dated as it chronicles Nirvana finding its footing in a world it never expected to inhabit.
“Serve The Servants”
A blast of dissonance starts off this rough-hewn, grooving rocker that effectively captures the spacious, live “room sound” that’s Albini’s stock in trade. “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old,” Cobain declares on this openly autobiographical track, in which he sings about his parents’ divorce, his relationship with his father and the media’s vilification of Love.
The thumping, group-written track — as headbanging a song as you’ll find in the Nirvana catalog, with Cobain screaming and howling like an Arthur Janov frequent flyer — was inspired by Patrick Suskind’s gothic historical novel “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.” Grohl has identified the line “You can’t fire me because I quit” as one of his favorites, and its irony has certainly been cited in ex-post-facto coverage of Cobain’s 1994 suicide.
“In Utero’s” first single was originally titled “Heart-Shaped Coffin” after a gift box Cobain received from Love. The song’s dynamic ebb and flow — restrained verses, explosive chorus — fell close enough to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to make it an obvious bridge into the new album. And while the gritty original Albini mix contained on the 20th anniversary edition is a revelation, it’s not hard to figure out why the Litt version of the song was more suited for commercial purposes.
Even though it’s obviously an anti-rape song, the track — released as a double A-side single with “All Apologies” — still caused Nirvana problems at certain retail chains that didn’t want to stock an album that contained a title like that. The song is one of “In Utero’s” oldest, written while “Nevermind” was being mixed and demoed during sessions with Endino during October of 1992. Nirvana also played a snippet of the song as a sly intro to its performance of “Lithium” during the 1992 MTV Music Video Awards.
“Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle”
It’s easy to believe Cobain, a fan of the 1978 Farmer biography “Shadowland,” felt some kinship with the late actress, whose reputation for being “difficult” and “demanding” led to conflicts with studios and drove her to mental illness (including hospitalization, shock therapy and a lobotomy) and alcoholism. The track itself has a barely-hinged tension and fierce ensemble dynamics that speak to Nirvana’s desire to crank up the noise factor more this time out.
Another track that dates back awhile — to the summer of 1990 in this case — “Dumb” joins “All Apologies” as the lightest and most melodic moment on “In Utero,” sweetened by Kera Schaley’s cello and outro vocal harmonies. Despite the title, it shows just how smart Cobain’s pop sensibilities could be.
In just under two minutes Cobain gets Cro-Magnon on a riffy, dense rocker that takes the piss out of chest-thumping macho sensibilities while flexing its own brawny musical muscle.
One of “In Utero’s” darkest songs (and that’s saying something) offers more ebb-and-flow, avant rock dynamics and psychological self-examination. Cobain announces that “I am my own parasite/I don’t need a host to live,” while “Look on the bright side is suicide” would, of course, have haunting reverberations seven months later.
Another summer of 1990 composition that was actually played by Nirvana while touring to support “Nevermind.” In his published “Journals,” Cobain wrote that “Pennyroyal Tea” is about an “herbal abortive…it doesn’t work, you hippie,” while at the time of “In Utero’s” release he identified it as being about someone suffering from severe depression. The track, with its gentle verses and loud choruses, was slated to be the album’s third single (also remixed by Litt) but was pulled after Cobain’s suicide.
“Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”
This Cobain-penned murky hard rocker (Stooges, anyone?) features more than a little spleen-venting as he spews out thoughts (“use just once and destroy,” “invasion of our privacy”) that seem random but speak to the post-“Nevermind” maelstrom. “What is wrong with me?” he pleads as the track grinds to a brittle, seemingly unfinished ending.
After a sly intro jab at “moderate rock,” Nirvana goes hardcore for 92 blazing seconds, with Cobain back in scream therapy mode and the three musicians in a vise-tight lock. Anything left in Cobain’s spleen from the previous track was surely excised here, allowing for the gentler tone of…“All Apologies”
A gorgeous melody, more ear-friendly ebb-and-flow dynamics and another varnished remix by Litt make for one of the most emotionally gripping songs Cobain and Nirvana ever committed to tape. With Schaley’s cello again fortifying the palette, the group offers a fond farewell that Cobain said at the time was dedicated to Love and their daughter, Frances Bean. “All in all is all we are” remains a haunting closing refrain, a sweet but also disturbing close for a group that had, for the moment, found a way to re-take control of its musical destiny.