From Pitchfork’s Stuart Berman’s review for its 20th anniversary edition:”While Kurt Cobain famously used the liner notes for 1992 rarities compilation Incesticide to call out the jocks, racists, and homophobes in Nirvana’s ever-expanding audience, In Utero promised a more aggressively hands-on process of weeding out the mooks, a concerted effort to realign Nirvana with the artists they actually listened to and away from those they were credited with spawning.[…]
Upon release, In Utero may have debuted at number one, but initially it was something of a pyrrhic victory: Rather than lead a wave of Jesus Lizard-inspired noise bands to the top of the Billboard charts, In Utero would send millions of Nirvana’s more casual crossover fans scurrying into the warm embrace of Pearl Jam’s record-setting October ’93 release Vs., an album that, from a music-biz perspective, was the true blockbuster sequel to Nevermind. In that sense, this first version of In Utero resonates as much today as a symbolic gesture as a collection of 12 unrelentingly visceral rock songs, a how-to manual for any artist at the top of their game– from Kid A-era Radiohead to Kanye West circa Yeezus— that would rather use their elevated position to provoke their audience than pander to it.”
Now, I’ve heard some people say that the such comparisons are overstated – nonsense. You simply have to put the album into context; imagine hearing it in 1993 after spinning Nevermind upwards of a hundred times in eager anticipation for the next album. First, consider either singles of the album. Yeah, “Hear-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies” both have melodies up their wazoo (the former might be my favorite Nirvana riff, ever) and you could have made an educated guess that both were singles if you didn’t already know, but compare the lyrics within them to any of the singles from Nevermind – the lines, “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black” and “What else could I say / Everyone is gay” appear on both, respectively. Meanwhile, there’s this squealing sounds breaking out of the left channel of “All Apologies” (around 2:50 – 3:00) that didn’t need to be added, but were added nonetheless.
Next, consider “Rape Me,” everyone’s favorite spanking child of the album (almost deservedly so because of the awfulness of the title – no one should ever wish upon something so inhumane, and don’t talk to me about rape fetish; people who ask their partners to rape them, are ironically, not being raped). While I might have had an issue with other artists copping their own songs to produce second sure-fire hits (ie. Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” repackaged and repurposed into “Judas”), I’m fine with “Rape Me” copping “Smells Like Teen Spirit”’s riff because it’s a statement – it was essentially impossible for the label to issue it as a single because of the title and sentiment (so they went the easier route with “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies,” but more on those later). And if that isn’t a good enough reason for you, just listen to how Cobain’s vocals becomes more and more unhinged throughout its 3-minute runtime – something that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” didn’t bother with.
Next, consider the fact that in between the two more “straight-forward” grunge numbers on the album (“Serve the Servants” and “Heart-Shaped Box”) is Nirvana’s most sonically abrasive song to appear in any of their proper studio albums – “Scentless Apprentice,” despite being the most riff-heavy song on the album. Although it’s the only song on In Utero to be conceived by the entire band it sounds like it might be the one most obviously written in the darkest machinations of Kurt Cobain’s mind. Lyrically, it’s a retelling of the novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Kurt Cobain’s favorite book), where perfume-maker Jean-Baptiste Grenouille becomes a murderer to create the perfect perfume (that resembling a virgin, apparently). Though Cobain’s lyrics are a lot more abstract, they’re no less visceral (“Every wet nurse refused to feed him / Electrolytes smell like semen”), and because his lyrics are abstract, they can apply to anyone. The “GET AWAY!!!!!’s of the chorus might originally have meant for him to warn victims to run away from the murderer, but they can double for him telling everyone around him to leave him alone (and considering how he shreds his own throat to deliver them, they definitely sound more in-tune to this interpretation). Kurt Cobain’s love for the Pixies is common knowledge, and here, he imitates Frank Black better than Frank Black himself could dream to that same year, while Steve Albini manages to make the drums still pound as loud as drums should over the riffs and screams as he did on Surfer Rosa.
Next, consider, well, the rest of the album. The verses of “Milk It” seem to be purposefully mixed that low so that the choruses are thatmuch more abrasive. And whereas Nevermind, with a few exceptions of course, could’ve easily been slotted under one genre, the bulk of In Utero’s second half are harder to pigeonhole. Yes, “Dumb,” “Pennyroyal Tea” and “All Apologies” fit under the grunge banner, but they share common DNA with singer/songwriter – hate the term or not – archetype, especially obvious when Cobain invokes Leonard Cohen in the dead middle of “Pennyroyal Tea” (“Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld / So I can sigh eternally”), while other tracks employ noise to disorient listeners (“Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” and “Tourette’s”). Of course, I’m not suggesting that In Utero didn’t/doesn’t have any pop potential. Cobain would’ve had to pull aMetal Machine Music to really iceberg the Nirvana, and try though he might through In Utero’s harshest moments, he can’t help but let in an indelible riff or vocal melody break through – the people who think he’s a genius aren’t wrong, he really was that good in those fields. And the people who might be put off by “Tourette’s” or Cobain’s lyrical sentiments can always retreat to the other parts of the album, like the melody of “Serve the Servants” (might be the catchiest soundbite of the entire album); the single bent guitar note and drum kick bringing out Cobain’s “HEY!” and “WAIT!” on “Heart-Shaped Box” or Dave Grohl harmonizing over Kurt Cobain (most obviously on the last syllables of each line in the choruses of “Pennyroyal Tea” but they’re happening practically everywhere). And, of course, there’s the most powerful moment on the album, on “All Apologies,” where the first half of the song seems to swell towards Cobain’s “In the sun / In thesun / I’m married / Buried.” (Though I should say that he’ll do the dramatic buildup with even more drama and buildup on MTV Unplugged in New York’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”)
A brief note about the 2013 20th Anniversary Edition reissue, in case you’re wondering whether or not it’s worth getting, whether we’re talking about shelling out upwards of a hundred dollars to sacrificing more space on your hard-drive – obviously not. Like the 20th Anniversary Edition of Nevermind, you’re getting your hands on new mixes of each of the old tracks that sound like the old mixes of each of the old tracks to these ears and a handful of live versions that don’t compare to the studio versions, as well as some demo versions of tracks that are obviously not going to match up to the originals (though everyone that’s a fan of the song should hear the demo version of “All Apologies” for a laugh). Then, there’s the elusive and oft-talked about original mixes of the two singles before they were handed over to Scott Litt (best known for producing R.E.M. records) to make them more radio friendly. In this case, there is a discernible difference in these ones (the solo in “Heart-Shaped Box” has Albini cranking the fuzzbox until it’s a single fuzz cell away from exploding, while the choruses of “All Apologies” are notably muddier) and I’m sure some people will welcome the ability to swap them for the originals, but I personally prefer the originals. Me? I’m most thankful for the b-sides that were available beforehand but are more readily so now. Kurt Cobain screaming “MARIJUANA!” – or maybe “IDONTWANNA!”, it’s hard to tell – in “Moist Vagina” is just as effective as the aforementioned chorus of “Scentless Apprentice,” doubly so when Grohl joins in (though “Moist” has an ending just as obnoxious as its title). “Sappy” packs more melodic punch than anything on In Utero and could’ve easily fit in Nevermind, while Dave Grohl getting his songwriter on for “Marigold” provides a nice melodic and harmonic retreat after the structureless 7-minute “Gallon of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip.”
A slight digression – the last one too, since I know I’ve rambled for long enough – a lot of people have questioned me about my infatuation with Britpop, a genre that meant absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things, a genre that produced very few classics because they were trying so desperately hard to sound like classic acts before them (Oasis taking after the Beatles, Blur taking after the Kinks, Suede taking after David Bowie/T.Rex and Pulp taking after Roxy Music). Yes, I acknowledge all that, but it’s not as if grunge lasted long itself and a lot of the music that grunge inspired (post-grunge, as it were) is easily detestable. But the biggest difference between the two alternative rock genres across the Atlantic was this – “I Hate Myself and Want to Die” (which is what Kurt Cobain originally wanted to name the album). (The song itself is a decent melody in the chorus and that’s it.) Questioned about it later by Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, Kurt Cobain said it was a joke. Y’know, sort of like Nevermind’s “I don’t have a gun” (“Come As You Are”) or In Utero’s “I think I’m just happy” (“Dumb”). Even ignoring Oasis’ “Live Forever” (Famously written in response to this song’s title, Liam Gallagher: “It seemed like to me [Cobain] was a guy that had everything, and was miserable about it. But we had fuck all! And I still thought that getting up in the morning was the greatest fucking thing ever.” Easily the smartest and most profound thing out of that guy’s mouth), the entirety of Britpop wanted none of grunge’s nihilistic or self-pitying attitude; they knew life sometimes sucked, but they also knew that life could sometimes be worth living and focussed on the latter. None of this doesn’t stop In Utero from being a fantastic album, of course.
Their best album, studio or otherwise. Yes, Nevermind sold more copies (“an objective measure” or whatever bullshit) and yes, Nevermind did more to change the landscape (“historically important” or whatever bullshit), but In Utero is better because – get this – it sounds better.
A for the original product, A+ for the reissue, and since I rarely ever give out the latter…