Why Nirvana's In Utero still rocks, 30 years on

Ian Chaddock

BY Ian Chaddock

20th Feb 2023 Music

Why Nirvana's In Utero still rocks, 30 years on

Thirty years ago, the urgent third and final Nirvana studio album, In Utero, saw the rock titans stick it to the man

A little over six months after Seattle grunge rock giants Nirvana released their third album, In Utero, their iconic frontman and lyricist Kurt Cobain was dead and one of the most seminal rock bands in history dissolved in tragedy.

However, 30 years on, In Utero is still a mighty swansong for the grunge legends—abrasive and genius in equal measure. Not as raw as their 1989 debut Bleach and not as world-conquering as 1991’s Nevermind, it still exists in a space that sees it stand as some fans’ favourite Nirvana album. Here’s why.

Nevermind changed music

Nirvana were never a rock band who enjoyed their massive success. They loathed it, in fact, particularly Kurt Cobain. The commercial success of Nevermind, and especially the massive single and MTV hit (with its iconic video) "Smells Like Teen Spirit"—called “the perfect encapsulation of Generation X angst and ennui” by the BBCwas never something that sat well with them. Looking back in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1993, Cobain admitted, “I didn’t know how to deal with success. If there was a Rock Star 101, I would have liked to take it. It might have helped me.”

"Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl were faced with the difficult question, 'How do you follow up an era-defining album?'"

Regardless, the success was huge and Nevermind spent 302 weeks in the UK’s top 100, eventually becoming one of the most streamed albums ever on Spotify and wrenching alternative rock from the underground to the mainstream—this led to a major label feeding frenzy of grunge rock and alternative rock. Cobain, Krist Novoselic (bass) and Dave Grohl (drums) were faced with the difficult question, “How do you follow up an era-defining album?”

Working with Steve Albini

Recruiting producer Steve Albini (Pixies, The Breeders), the former frontman of noise rockers Big Black, In Utero was always going to sound different from what the band had done before. It was recorded and mixed over two weeks in the isolated Pachyderm Studio in a snowy Cannon Falls, Minnesota in February 1993. The band worked quickly, recording instrumental tracks together or drums in a kitchen for the reverb on faster songs. Cobain reportedly recorded all his vocals in just six hours (most of which were first takes) and the band kept virtually everything they recorded.

Nirvana's In Utero 30 years on—The band with Steve Albini in the studio in February 1993In the studio in February 1993. L-R: Steve Albini, Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain holding Frances Bean Cobain, Bob Weston (technician), Krist Novoselic

Despite Cobain having hesitations about working with Albini because of his reputation as being difficult, he later described it as “the easiest recording we’ve ever done, hands down.” DGC Records (the major label that had also released Nevermind) was concerned about the mixes of the album, with producer Scott Litt being brought in to remix the songs intended as singles; “Heart Shaped Box” and “All Apologies”, in Seattle in May, 1993. Cobain said around the time, ominously, “Of course, they want another Nevermind, but I’d rather die than do that. This is exactly the kind of record I would buy as a fan, that I would enjoy owning.”

In Utero examined

Drummer Dave Grohl (now the frontman of rock titans the Foo Fighters), in an updated biography of him called This is a Call: The Life and Times of Dave Grohl, by Paul Brannigan, explained: “In Utero was so different [to Nevermind]. There was no laboured process… [it] just came out, like a purge, and it was so pure.” He added, “We just pushed ourselves in the other direction, like, ‘Oh really, that’s what you like? Well, here’s what you’re going to f*****g do now!” However, he admitted it was “such an accurate representation of the band at the time, it brings back other memories; it kind of makes my skin crawl.”

"'Serve the Servants' sees Cobain sing 'Teenage angst has paid off well, now I'm bored and old', showing a jaded side to the band"

From angular rocking opener “Serve the Servants”, on which Cobain sings “Teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old,” and the lyrics about his father and parents’ divorce, they were showing an angry and jaded side to the band. Themes of childbirth and sickness reflect another kind of struggle. Grohl said at the time of the album’s release that it was about what Cobain had been through, explaining, “it’s not so much teen angst anymore. It’s a whole different ball game: rock star angst.” Songs such as the controversial “Rape Me” (renamed as “Waif Me” on some US versions of the record) and “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” showed there was no love lost between the band and the music industry.

Songs like the melancholic “Dumb” and the unreleased third single “Pennyroyal Tea” show how evolved and fearless Nirvana were, while the chunky riff of “Very Ape” was later sampled by The Prodigy on “Voodoo People”. The raging “Scentless Apprentice” and frenzied punk of “Milk It” were more signs of the band sticking the middle finger up to the label and their own success, but the infectious singles “Heart-Shaped Box” and melodic closer “All Apologies” were more like the Nirvana of Nevermind. Novoselic believed these songs to be “gateways” to the more angry and relentless songs. He told journalist Jim DeRogatis that listening to the full album, listeners would discover “this aggressive wild sound, a true alternative record.”

UK release and reaction

Released on September 13, 1993 in the UK on vinyl record and cassette tape, and on CD in the UK the following day, In Utero debuted at number one and, NME stated that it, “confirmed [Nirvana’s] status as the seminal band of all time.” Rolling Stone called it “a triumph of the will" and Q commented, “If this is how Cobain is going to develop, the future is lighthouse-bright.” The song “Rape Me” and the back cover image of the record caused some controversies in the US, but the album was a critical and commercial success.

Nirvana In Utero album coverNirvana's In Utero showed a bright, creative future that was sadly cut short. Photo: DGC Records

It was ranked by several critics as their album of the year, but others compared it unfavourably to the landmark album Nevermind. Replicating the impact of an album that changed the music industry would be impossible, so Nirvana went in the opposite direction—a move that makes them artistically even more impressive.

Tragedy strikes

The album’s first single “Heart-Shaped Box” (and the final music video the band released before Cobain's death) was released before the album in August 1993, with a double A-side single following in December—“All Apologies” and “Rape Me”. The band’s European tour began in February 1994 but was cancelled after Cobain overdosed on March 6 in Rome. Although he agreed to enter drug rehabilitation, he soon went missing and was tragically found dead at his home on April 8, 1994, aged just 27.

In the wake of his death, third single “Pennyroyal Tea” was scrapped, although Nirvana sales rose drastically in the UK and unused Nirvana concert tickets sold for inflated prices. Kurt was gone and Nirvana was no more, but In Utero and the following acoustic live album, MTV Unplugged in New York—recorded on November 18, 1993, and released posthumously on November 1, 1994, continued to sell in huge numbers.

Legacy of In Utero

Abrasive, dark, uncompromising and thrilling—In Utero was the soundtrack of a band clawing and fighting against their own success and the attempted control of fat cats and industry bigwigs, tapping into sounds and directions that they’d not explored like this before, while simultaneously reconnecting with their punk roots. The fact that the biggest band in the world were doing what they wanted and defying expectations makes it sound invigorating, even though it was quickly followed by disaster.

"The fact that the biggest band in the world were doing what they wanted and defying expectations makes it sound invigorating"

I remember listening to “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies” in my older brother’s room as a kid and feeling sad that Kurt was suddenly gone. To lose such a raw and honest talent at such a young age felt unfair, to me and to the world. My brother remembers thinking it was confusing, “when Nirvana were at the top of their game.”

This final album showed that, even facing the daunting task of following up one of the most seminal rock records of all time, Cobain and Nirvana still surprised and stayed true to themselves—which still shines through on this powerful record, 30 years later. And that’s not dumb, I think I’m just happy we got In Utero at all.

Banner photo: Anton Corbijn/DGC Records

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