On September 13th, 1993, Nirvana released what was to be their last full length album before Kurt Cobain’s untimely death, but for many it is difficult to separate the two events. For some people, these events have to remain connected and it would be difficult to say that in some ways they aren’t. However, if you look at the album in the context of the situation that Kurt Cobain and Nirvana were going through at the time, you might just see it differently. In Utero is notable for being the sonic opposite of Nevermind, the breakthrough album that pushed Nirvana into the spotlight in 1991. As a whole, In Utero seemed to be an artistic foray into the realm of Noise, Rock and Pop.
In Utero was produced and recorded by Steve Albini, known for his work in Big Black and other notable recording/producing credits such as The Pixies Surfer Rosa album. Recorded at Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, the album was made quickly in a short two week period, which captured the band in a raw and live atmosphere. In Utero’s songs were culled from songs that the band had for years, dating back as far as 1990 and newer songs that were written specifically for this album. The songs were modified lyrically and musically to a degree and when combined with the rest of the album they showcased a cohesive narrative.
The opening of “Serve The Servants” proves to be the dissonant opposite of Nervmind’s opening track “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. The lines “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old” set the mood for what was to come musically and lyrically on In Utero. The song in the context of time and place seems to address Cobain’s reaction to Nirvana’s successes and his life as an adolescent and becoming an adult. The lines “As my bones grew they did hurt/They hurt really bad/I tried hard to have a father/But instead I had a Dad” seem to emphasize all these things. At the same time, while the later line is a reference to Cobain’s relationship with his father, it also is reminiscent of the line “He might be a father/But he sure ain't a Dad” from The Replacements song “Androgynous” found on their 1984 album Let It Be. This further emphasizes their musical intentions, although it was most likely a subconscious thought, it is leaning more towards the underground sound of the college radio aesthetic in which the band was bred as opposed to the crisp produced sound of mainstream rock that they seemed to battle against.
“Scentless Apprentice” attacks even deeper with its heavy drums and guitar riffs. Lyrically the song was influenced by the book Perfume by Patrick Suskind about a perfume apprentice seeking out the perfect scent by murder, even though he has no body odour of his own. The song can be seen as an allegory for the mainstream media, as can quite a few songs throughout this album. “Rape Me” is a bold Punk/Pop concoction that was supposedly inspired by the misinterpretations of Cobain’s past lyrics, “Francis Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle” once again draws from a literary world, being influenced by the 1978 Biography of actress Frances Farmer entitled Shadowland. Songs such as “Dumb”, “Pennyroyal Tea” and “All Apologies” all lean towards Cobain’s Beatles influenced tendencies, while songs such as “Very Ape”, “Milk It” and “Tourette’s” all lean towards the bands aggressive Punk tendencies.
“Heart-Shaped Box” was the first single released for In Utero. The song quickly shot up the Billboard charts becoming number one on the Billboard Modern Rock Track charts, but it had its origins in 1992. The song is one of the best examples of the bands style featuring the quiet verse and loud chorus dynamic that many of their songs featured. Lyrically the song is said to have a few meanings, the most common being about Cobain’s relationship with Courtney Love, she had according to Charles R. Cross’s Heavier Than Heaven, given Cobain a heart shaped box. And although the song was originally titled “Heart-Shaped Coffin”, many visual images are portrayed throughout the song with lyrics seeming to reference, love, birth and the portrayal of the media. When coupled with the music video shot by Anton Corbjin, it created a striking visual package.
To further add to the album’s aggressive nature, it was originally rejected by the band’s record company, being described as unreleasable initially. The album was recorded in six days and was mixed in five days initially with Steve Albini. After many back and forths with the record company, some overdubs were added to some of the songs such as “Heart-Shaped Box”, “Pennyroyal Tea” and “All Apologies” and they were also remixed by Scott Litt. The title “In Utero” is also equally as important when discussing this album, the songs, and even the artwork which portrayed a transparent anatomical mannequin with angel wings attached. The album’s title “In Utero” is a Latin term meaning in the womb. The title can mean quite a few things when considering the lyrical subject matter found on the album. It could refer to a wanting to return to a simpler time, when not in the public eye of the world or even a rebirth. The themes of birth and death appear throughout the album. Nirvana definitely attempted a rebirth of sorts with this album, coming off different musically and more focused from a lyrical standpoint. In a recent interview with XFM bassist Krist Novoselic had this to say about In Utero:
"I'm really proud of it. It's really good and it is a testimony to the artistic vision of Kurt Cobain. You listen to that record and the intensity and that power and that is a tribute to Kurt's vision."
As a whole, In Utero displayed a more abrasive and aggressive sound that differed from the albums Nevermind and Bleach. The lyrics are angst ridden and at times nihilistic, but match the ambiance that is portrayed throughout the twelve songs found on In Utero. The album ends with the mantra-like drone to the lines “All in all is all we are” from the Beatles-esque “All Apologies”. While many reviewers have pointed out this closing line to the closing track, it is a rather fitting way to end this album. Nirvana always seemed to do what they wanted whether it was the heaviness of Bleach, or the sharply produced Nevermind. In Utero stands on its own and it is what it is. Whether you like it or not or even agree with the many reviews that are popping up all over the internet, In Utero is a rebirth of a band that were at the height of their popularity and ability in approximately 41 minutes.
In September 2013, In Utero celebrated its 20th anniversary and was released in a deluxe package including a DVD of the previously unreleased MTV Live & Loud concert from 1993. Included in this set are B-sides and demos created around the time of the album. Fans have heard many of these songs before, such as the seven minute jam “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol That Flow Through The Strip” and “Sappy”, but all of them have been given remixed treatment. Also included is a remix of the album done by Steve Albini and the remaining members of Nirvana, several of the tracks featuring alternate parts and harmonies, most notably the solo in “Serve The Servants”. While many fans argue the point of this new mix, it was inspired by Novoselic hearing the recent Doors remasters. The remix was done to look at the songs from “A different angle” as Novoselic put it. The package puts together nicely the album, its B-sides, demos, even an unreleased instrumental song that has not been heard anywhere before called “Forgotten Tune”.
This Week's Play List:
1. Shady & The Vamp – Let Me Know
2. Teenanger – Singles Don’t $ell
3. Tricky Woo – Allright
4. The Orwells – Open Your Eyes
5. Arctic Monkeys – Fireside
6. Dr. Dog – Minding The Usher
7. The Stance – Sweet Tooth
8. Shooz – Rocking Out To Montreal
9. Dice – Tired Of Living Like This
10. The Blokes – All American Girl
11. The Bad Seeds – A Taste of The Same
12. Duane Eddy – Kommotion
13. Racoon Wedding – Local Ghosts
14. Cousins – Crew
15. Construction & Destruction – Waving At Ships
16. Nirvana – Serve The Servants (2013 Mix)
17. Nirvana – Forgotten Tune
18. Nirvana – The Man Who Sold The World (MTV Live & Loud 1993)
19. Golden Grrls – Take Your Time
20. Elvis Costello & The Roots – Walk Us Uptown
21. The Clash – Innoculated City
22. The Clash – 1977 (Beaconsfield Demo 1976)
23. The Clash – City of the Dead (Live The Lyceum December, 28, 1979)
To download this weeks program, visit CJAM's schedule page for Revolution Rock and download the file for October 15. Or subscribe to Revolution Rock as a Podcast.