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Nirvana – In Utero [Album Review]

March 30, 2012

Serve the Servants / Scentless Apprentice / Heart-Shaped Box / Rape Me / Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle /Dumb / Very Ape / Milk It / Pennyroyal Tea / Radio Friendly Unit Shifter / Tourettes All Apologies

Everyone knows the story by now, the updated version of “rags to riches,” the American Dream becoming true. Before the release of their sophomore album, no one predicted these scruffy guys would become one of the biggest bands in the world, selling millions of albums, selling out all the venues they played and leaving their mark on the pop culture (remember how even all those pop acts and 80’s hair metal bands suddenly restyled themselves?). But it did happen, and it probably wouldn’t have been such a problem, had not Kurt Cobain loatheed himself so much because of his superstar status. He had always admired (and supported) independent and idealistic rock acts, and I guess he hated himself because of becoming bigger than many of them. This, combined with his self-deprecating nature, of course. Well, I’m not trying to claim I was a personal acquaintance of the guy, but that’s pretty obvious, right? Anyway, like so many other people, I do think that Nirvana’s third studio album, In Utero, was an attempt to alienate the largest part of their public and to regain some ‘indie credibility’.

Produced by Steve Albini, In Utero is a much harsher and a more emotionally draining album than Nevermind, with a far less polished production, and less accessible songs to match. The album starts off with one of the best tracks, an unsung Nirvana classic. A mid-tempo rocker that seems to drag itself lazily along, “Serve the Servants” is nevertheless a fine track with a semi-mumbled chorus, ragged solo, and (oh, surprise) self-deprecating lyrics, that also ridicule the band’s status (“Teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old, self-appointed judges judge, more than they have sold”). “Scentless Apprentice”, which takes its cue from Das Parfum by Swiss author Patrick Süskind, is one of the first loud tracks on this album, with noisy drums, concrete riffing, and Cobain’s mad screaming voice. It’s weird, but initially these songs didn’t seem interesting at all, but gradually I had to admit that they rock. “Very Ape,” “Milk It,” and “Tourette’s” are dominated by seemingly chaotic musicianship, alternations of soft, loud and very loud sections, and disgusted vocals, but in the context of this album, they work well. For some reason (overdose?), the album’s most famous tracks, “Heart-Shaped Box,” and “Rape Me” have become somewhat of a drag to listen to, but they remain very good tracks that combine the melodic elements from the previous album with the rawness of the current. “Rape Me” has an introduction that reminds me of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but I can’t imagine “Rape Me” on Nevermind. That can also be applied to “Frances Farmer,” which has quite accessible parts, but also contains reminders of Bleach’s heaviness.

“I’m not like them, but I can pretend” are the first lines of “Dumb,” In Utero’s very own “Polly”. It’s a gentle track, sung with controlled intensity by Cobain, containing once again depressing lyrics. By the time you’ve reached this song, the message’s probably clear: this guy really ain’t too happy. The album’s crammed with lines such as “I think I’m dumb,” “I am my own parasite” (“Milk It”), “I’m a liar and a thief” (“Pennyroyal Tea”), “I love you for what I am not” (“Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”), etc. Even more painful than this is the obsession with bodily decay (references to sores, burns, cancer), bodily fluids (semen, shit, laxatives), and life/death (birth, abortion, afterbirth), which makes it obviously clear that Cobain no longer seemed to believe there was anything to enjoy in this life any more because everything ultimately leads to death. “All Apologies,” one of the album’s highlights, and, like “Dumb” a moving song with an awesome guitar melody and oddly intense atmosphere, is a final negative note. “Everything is my fault, I’ll take all the blame” sounds a bit weird in the light of his suicide the next year.

An album that is quite a bit uneven and contains some disappointing songs (“Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” is monotonous and boring, while “Pennyroyal Tea” is no match for a later version they’d record), In Utero is hard to take in. However, it may very well be the quintessential Nirvana-album, capturing their complicated essence. Nevermind may be a better sounding and more consistent album, but it doesn’t have this album’s gut-wrenching honesty and emotional resonance. On the other hand, Nevermind is probably the ideal way to get acquainted with Nirvana, as this album really sounds as if they were on the verge of a breakdown, and it is a bitter chapter in a tumultuous and harrowing book.

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One Comment
  1. Having just uploaded a review of the album myself, I can see some similarities in our views about this being “the quintessential Nirvana-album”. You should go check it out, although I warn you, I may be somewhat biased as a huge Nirvana lover in what I will admit it a self-indulgent review of an album I love.

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