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“Our Absolution”: The Beauty & Brutality of NIRVANA’s ‘IN UTERO’…

Nirvana In Utero album cover

In September, a 20th anniversary edition of In Utero is being released (I know – where those two decades have gone, fuck knows).

It will include the original album, plus bonus tracks, and some of the legendary original mixes of certain tracks by Steve Albini – a taste of what the original version of the third and final Nirvana album would’ve sounded like had Geffen records not insisted on strategic remixing (or had the band not decided themselves to remix certain tracks, depending on which source you read).

“Our absolution”, was how Krist Novoselic referred to In Utero at the time.

I clearly remember all the talk and build-up to In Utero in the music press at the time; all the controversy over what direction Nirvana were taking, all the talk about remixing and about the record company being horrified by the original tape they’d been given and considering it ‘unreleasable’, along with the various contradictory statements by the band, including Kurt saying “I think we’re going to lose a lot of our audience with this next record…”


“That record would’ve changed the course of popular music…” That’s what influential UK music journalist Everett True said of the advance tape of the original Albini In Utero mixes that he’d been leaked by Courtney Love prior to the remixing.


Whether he was right about that or not, the version of Nirvana’s final album that we ended up with is nevertheless something wholly incredible.

The ‘Albini sound’ does give the album more sonic power than ‘Nevermind‘, the drums and bass in particular being extraordinarily powerful in the final mix (just listen to ‘Rape Me’ or ‘Tourettes’, for example). Albini bombarded the instruments with microphones; five or six for the snare drum alone. Grohl’s drumming on this album might be the most powerful sounding there’s ever been on a mainstream rock release.

Every element of the music is amplified and maximised on this record, as if the way had been found to take Nirvana to their proper ‘level’.

It’s difficult to define ‘the Nirvana sound‘, given that each of their three studio albums has a completely different ‘sound’ and feel to it; but I always sense with In Utero that it was the sound Kurt might always have been looking for.

Steve Albini’s trademark production methodologies have something to do with it; but so does the pure quality of the songwriting. In fact, even REM producer Scott Litt‘s work creates a really memorable Nirvana sound – almost a sub-album within the larger album – in the form of ‘Heart Shaped Box’, ‘All Apologies’ and ‘Pennyroyal Tea’; tracks that have a rich ‘fullness’ to their final sound, particularly the guitars. They’re incredible, almost overwhelming songs; broadly accessible, yet not quite clean, like angels being dragged through mud.

“It was pretty much the fulfilment of a childhood fantasy…” Kurt once said in regard to In Utero’s sound.

While ‘Nevermind‘ is probably the better (or at least more ‘perfect’) album as a whole, I still think that, as an artistic statement, In Utero is the better record. It is also the more powerful, both sonically and thematically (life, death and birth, pregnancy, cancer and disease, as well as marriage, fame and grunge); in the latter case, the themes and lyrics are much more focused and pervasive than on Nevermind. 

Kurt’s lyrics, for example, in songs like Pennyroyal Tea, Heart Shaped Box and All Apologies being far more coherent and more meaningful than on most of Nevermind.

 

In Utero collage: Courtney Love, Frances Bean
Courtney and Frances amid Cobain’s foetus collage, photo by Charles Peterson.

 

It seems trite to say it, but there just doesn’t seem to be music as potent as this made anymore.

For all the talk of what Nirvana would’ve been like if Kurt had carried on, and what a post-In Utero Nirvana would’ve sounded like, I can’t help but think it wouldn’t – and couldn’t – have gotten any better than this; that In Utero represents the pinnacle of what Nirvana could’ve been and what Kurt’s songwriting could’ve been.

Not just what Nirvana could’ve been, for that matter, but even what rock music can be at both its best and its purest.

From that instantly compelling cover of the pregnant angel and the rest of the fascinating artwork (based on Cobain’s own foetus collages and his fascination with the reproduction process), to the harsh genius of ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’ and the sardonic, almost parody-like ‘Serve the Servants’ to the melodic grunge of ‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle’ and to the utter perfection of ‘Heart Shaped Box’ and the sublime ‘Dumb’, it just doesn’t get better than this.

There’s not a dull track, not a dull moment; even moments that don’t quite work perfectly are nevertheless compelling. It’s as if Nirvana simply couldn’t do boring, couldn’t do padding.

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“The first time I played it at home, I knew there was something wrong…” – Kurt Cobain, in an interview with Circus magazine, November 1993.

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Yet there’s almost a schizophrenic character to In Utero, which on the one hand is extremely (even excessively) anti-commercial with songs like ‘Scentless Apprentice’ and ‘Milk It’, but then on the other hand features ‘Heart Shaped Box’ and ‘All Apologies’, beautiful compositions that could be playing out on radios for all time.

It’s as if Kurt couldn’t quite decide; even when he was trying to be brutal and violent, he couldn’t help but tend towards the melodic and beautiful. This isn’t a flaw – it’s an inadvertent strength; it makes for a beautiful body of music, which seems to be trying to find it’s centre and it’s identity while pulling back and forth between two extremes.

 Kurt Cobain 

This duality of intent might’ve been what caused a lot of the alleged tension between the band,  Albini, and the record company and management.

Nirvana, and Cobain in particular, seemed to genuinely want to make an anti-mainstream statement, yet at the same time couldn’t help but want to get the best possible sound for certain key songs where the Albini mixes weren’t bringing out the best possible result. While the record company denied interfering in the process, the enlistment of Scott Litt on those key tracks caused Albini to accuse Nirvana of “selling out”.

But yet that same duality of intent is partly what makes In Utero such a fascinating piece of work; even when the band was trying to be brutal, it seems like there was still an understanding that it would be a terrible waste for some of Kurt’s best, most powerful songwriting not to be properly showcased; meaning that tracks like Heart-Shaped Box and All Apologies really did need to be remixed in order for them to properly shine.

While the opportunity now to listen to the original mixes of these tracks provides a fascinating compare-and-contrast, those initial remixes by Scott Litt take nothing away from the power of the standard In Utero album we’ve been listening to for twenty years; in fact they add to the overall power of the album.

When it’s violent or ugly (as with the paint-stripping ‘Tourettes’ or the searing ‘Scentless Apprentice’), it is massively so, but when it’s sweet or beautiful, it is breathtakingly so.

 Nirvana: In Utero collage 

It’s possible there will never be an album of such harsh contrasts made again by anyone. It’s actually amazing to think this album got released on a major record label at all (much less that it sat at No.1 on the album charts).

If Nevermind had sounded like In Utero, we probably wouldn’t be talking about Nirvana – there’s no way it would’ve brought Nirvana to mainstream notice. But by making Nevermind (a record that all the band members have openly said they were not happy with the sound and production of, considering it too ‘slick’), Kurt essentially bought himself the power and leeway to make something like In Utero – a unique and discordant entity that no one really expected, and that those in the music business and the press couldn’t seem to decide how they felt about.

I remember most of the reviews being very positive, especially in the UK music press, but I also remember one of the broadsheets (The Observer, I think) calling it “harrowing”.


In Utero, in my opinion, is one of the greatest artistic statements of all time.


It was also the only way, artistically speaking, Kurt Cobain could go after Nevermind. Whereas most other bands would follow up a successful record with trying to do more of the same – and most bands of that era did exactly that; no slight against, say, Pearl Jam, but they followed up Ten with an album consisting of the same formula – Kurt and Nirvana went and made a record that, on the surface of it, clearly wasn’t geared towards being commercially viable or radio-friendly.

It’s interesting to note that Nirvana’s ‘rivals’ Pearl Jam (though only in the media; in reality there wasn’t any genuine rivalry between them), released their follow-up to their groundbreaking Ten debut within mere weeks of Nirvana releasing In UteroVs literally displaced In Utero from the No.1 spot in the US Billboard chart and became the fastest selling album of all-time in the US and confirmed Pearl Jam at that point as the real commercial face of the “grunge scene”, their popularity in America rapidly eclipsing that of Nirvana’s; though in Europe and in the UK especially it was Nirvana that remained the more celebrated and definitely the more critically-acclaimed.

The relative style and tone of In Utero as compared to that of Pearl Jam’s Vs would’ve only amplified that state of affairs beyond 1993 too; Nirvana were clearly moving away from commercial success in the US, while other alternative acts like Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots were embracing it. Nirvana didn’t even release their two In Utero singles – Heart Shaped Box and All Apologies – commercially in the US at all, though they did in Europe and the UK (Heart Shaped Box in fact reaching No.5 on the UK singles chart and becoming their most successful UK single).

 Nirvana: Heart Shaped Box single 

It’s interesting to note, however, that Pearl Jam – post Cobain’s death (within months of the In Utero and Vs releases) – did a similar thing and began moving in a less commercial, less conventional, direction with their music and their way of operating. Vitalogy was the major step in that direction away from mainstream embrace.

Two decades later, In Utero is rightly seen as an album clearly not made for radio play, pop consumption or great sales figures, but rather a work of breathtaking beauty, artistic integrity, and a glorious disregard for popular taste and expectations.

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“I’m more proud of this record than anything we’ve ever done. We’ve finally achieved the sound I’ve been hearing in my head forever” – Kurt Cobain.

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It isn’t perfect; ‘Tourette’s’ – as brilliantly abrasive as it is – is hardly any great artistic statement, and the otherwise brilliant and caustic ‘Very Ape’ sounds like it ended about three minutes too early; but the lack of perfection is part of the appeal. While track-for-track, Nevermind probably stands as a stronger album, Nevermind doesn’t have anything as extreme as ‘Scentless Apprentice’, yet as poignantly beautiful as ‘Heart Shaped Box’, nor anything as confusingly brilliant as ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’ – how that song manages to sound so good, so focused, amid all that tuneless noise and mad feedback is still a mystery to me.

Any time, even now, that I listen to In Utero I find myself amazed that an album as powerful as this actually got made – that it even exists.

And Kurt’s lyricism is really something special on this album; the lyrical imagery and the tone and feeling evoked in Pennyroyal Tea, for example, is far more memorable than anything Nirvana had recorded before, likewise with Heart-Shaped Box. The former was described by Cobain in part as a reference to an abortion technique, but he also described it as a song about someone “on their deathbed”; it’s such a strangely triumphant, life-affirming song and yet lyrically so bleak and resigned, the contradictory nature of it is extraordinary – but that contradictory nature is a central element of what made this album so extraordinary as a whole too.


I have always marveled at how bleak and resigned some of Nirvana’s songs and Kurt’s writing could be and yet how sonically uplifting and almost triumphant it could feel at the exact same time. Never is that duality more in evidence than on tracks here like Pennyroyal Tea and All Apologies.


Heart-Shaped Box, meanwhile, Cobain claimed to have written about children who are diagnosed with cancer. “Anytime I think about it, it makes me sadder than anything I can think of,” he told Michael Azzerad. However, it’s also clear from other statements and intimations that the song was at least in part the closest Kurt came to writing a love song about his wife Courtney, the origins of the “heart shaped box” references being linked to several highly endearing stories involved their courtship; the “in utero” title, meanwhile, was said to have been derived from one of Courtney Love’s poems.

Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle is inspired by the plight of old-time Hollywood actress Frances Farmer and her mistreatment in mental health institutions (MK-Ultra?): though it also seems to double-up as a statement on the Seattle music scene and the ‘grunge’ phenomenon’s co-opting by mainstream ‘trend’ culture.

 

 

The album’s closing statement is All Apologies; a perfect, heartbreaking piece of pop music genius, with the most honest, bare and poignant lyrics Kurt might ever have written. And the sound of this track, the production and mix, is utterly perfect – for all the talk of unnecessary remixing and original versions, you cannot imagine this song sounding any better than it does.

And what a way to finish Nirvana’s final album; with the simplest, most tuneful, most spiritually uplifting and life-affirming song Cobain probably ever wrote. What’s remarkable about it is how non-depressing a song it is, given some of the bleak, violent moments on the record and given some of the gloomy lyrical tone Cobain’s songwriting was known for and the doom-monger he was regarded as by many.

For various reasons, All Apologies – which was released as joint double A-side single with Rape Me – didn’t get a music video to go with it. Heart Shaped Box was therefore the only In Utero single to have a video: and what a memorable, iconic video it was. All Apologies ended up being the last Nirvana single to be released while Cobain was still alive: the Pennyroyal Tea single was cancelled after Kurt’s death.

All Apologies ends the album and ends the Nirvana story on such a bright, upbeat, almost optimistic note. It was the perfect end-point, and I was always glad this was the last track.

‘Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol…’ – which was actually the closing track on some versions of the CD release (as the ‘bonus’ track) works in its own way as the ‘final’ Nirvana song: being a suitably rag-tag, partly ad-libbed affair, full of Cobain sarcasm and goofiness. But there’s something about All Apologies being the coda that just seems entirely necessary or destined.

Much of the bonus material on this special 20th anniversary release consists of tracks we’ve already heard on other compilations or bootlegs over the years, such as ‘MV’, the Grohl-fronted ‘Marigold’ and the infectious and laconic ‘Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol…’ (a deliberately glorious mess of a track) , as well as  ‘I Hate Myself and Want To Die’ (one of the original titles for the album: thank God it wasn’t called that).

Even so, if ever there was a piece of work worth commemorating, it’s this; a timeless and at times harrowing, masterpiece of bruised, brutal and beautiful art.

Music – no, art – at truly its most potent.

As Nirvana’s swan-song and Kurt Cobain’s final artistic statement, we couldn’t have asked for anything better, anything more enduringly fascinating, than this.

S. Awan

Independent journalist. Pariah. Believer in human rights, human dignity and liberty. Musician. Substandard Jedi. All-round failure. And future ghost.

0 Comments

    • It might even be my all-time favorite album. Just amazing.

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