Nirvana - In Utero - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Nirvana - In Utero

by Tim Sentz Rating:10 Release Date:1993-09-21
Nirvana - In Utero
Nirvana - In Utero

Let’s just get down to brass tacks. In Utero is better than Nevermind. Period. There’s no room for debate on this. Nevermind is the reason Nirvana exists in history, and it’s a fantastic album. Perfect 10. Best of all time type of album. But when you line the albums up side-by-side, In Utero outperforms Nevermind in every sector. Before his death, Kurt Cobain reiterated how much he disliked Nevermind because of the fame it brought the band. Grunge became a fad and replaced hair metal of the 80s, and thankfully helped usher in the appreciation for indie rising artists like Sonic Youth, the Pixies, and Dinosaur Jr., but also paved the way for expanded appreciation for similar acts like Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Stone Temple Pilots. Yes, Nevermind is a landmark album. It changed the musical landscape. It’s iconic, a necessary listen. 

But as far as raw power - yes, that’s an Iggy reference, a huge influence on the band - In Utero towers over Nevermind and Bleach. The relentless howls of Cobain on “Scentless Apprentice” and “Tourette’s” are far removed from the radio-friendly harmonies of “In Bloom” and “Come As You Are.” Naturally, both albums complement each other. For In Utero to exist, we needed Nevermind to set the stage. Their sophomore record put them on the map, but it’s In Utero that will be remembered as the band going balls-to-the-wall. Maybe it was an exercise in rebellion to the sudden fame. Maybe it’s the pitch-perfect engineering of Steve Albini, but I think the most prevalent characteristic of In Utero lies with its sincerity. It’s more emotional than you’d expect, after the “whiny” label that ageing rockers put on the band after songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Lithium” were constantly shoved down their throats via excessive radio play. 

There’s an intriguing narrative to In Utero. Crafted at the band's peak success, and the inner turmoil Cobain was experiencing with the birth of his daughter, constant heroin use, and manic depression, the album is a representation of this dark time. “Serve the Servants” finds Cobain calling out to his father, a man whom he was constantly at odds with growing up. Cobain, much like a lot of children in the Reagan-era, was a child of divorce, something that splinters the soul. Today’s marriages may feel more structured, but that’s because of progressiveness with how fathers can be more, instead of limited. This wasn’t a thing back then, and this alienation from his parents fuels all of the band’s work, but it's front and center on In Utero - the title even referencing the early pain. 

One of the most polarizing and controversial singles of the 90s, “Rape Me” was banned from radio stations and removed from MTV rotation because midwestern Christians didn’t know how to read between the lines. The response to “Rape Me” was misguided, and the sarcastic tone that Cobain puts forth should have been a dead give away that this song is not encouraging rape, but instead a fight against the act. Naturally, it lead to widespread hostility from parents declaring the band anti-women, advocating for rape culture, the usual response when people don’t understand something. The other primary single from the album was “Heart-Shaped Box” which faired better, but still received criticism for its music video. Again, surface judgement by terrified parents. The kids who listened to Nirvana back then, are now the parents though, and the hope is that the xenophobia that was so rampant in the early 90s and extended into this current century will soon be gone. I have hope, but I don’t see it happening. 

In Utero was a success in its day, and is still highly revered. But those who only casually listen to Nirvana will continue to pull at the overly popular songs. Look at their Spotify streams - both “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come As You Are” have nearly double the amount of “Heart Shaped Box,” almost triple. That’s because those songs are easy to throw on and not analyze. A song like “All Apologies” has a lot of emotional red tape attached to it, with underlying motives that you can’t ignore. Sure, an assessment about high school image can resonate, but often times our core selves are put on blast for any type of “feelings” displayed. And the feelings of “All Apologies” or “Pennyroyal Tea” are stronger than anything Nevermind could offer. 

This isn’t a dog on Nevermind. It’s a classic. But I’ll take the Pepsi-challenge for In Utero any day of the week. Even the albums B-sides are phenomenal - “Sappy” had no place on the actual album, but could have stormed the radio back in 1993;  “Marigold” is classic Kurt delivery, with a delicate intro that builds to a very ear-wormy melodic chorus. The first time I listened to In Utero I was completely dismissive. I only wanted to hear the fun songs, like “Heart Shaped Box.” But as I matured, the lesser appreciated songs became so much more intriguing - “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” may not have had the marketing title one would hope for, it’s every bit as powerful as “Dumb” or “Pennyroyal Tea,” but sees so little exposure comparatively. This is true for the B-sides as well, which were finally collected into the remaster/reissue from 2014, all finally in the same place and all sounding crystal clear. 

In Utero is perfect from front to back. A time capsule of estranged sons and daughters of the 1980s, a love-letter to the runaways, and a warm hug to those contemplating suicide or hurting. It may not have been the band’s intention, maybe it was, but In Utero transcends whatever criticisms the anti-Nirvana camp may have. It flexes and challenges, but isn’t sappy or overblown. It’s exactly what it needed to be after Nevermind, and as the final album of a very brief band, it acts as a heart-wrenching bookend. There are several albums from the 90s that can still punch like In Utero, but none of them have that dark cloud that looms over them quite like this one does. It’s a screen capture of the ugly underbelly of teenage depression and how it manifests into false images, fear of sexual inadequacy, and in some extreme cases - school shootings. No one will ever be like Nirvana, and it’s a shame that even in 2019, we haven’t learned anything from In Utero

Comments (1)

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10/10 review! Not my favourite listening experience by a long shot, but you're absolutely spot-on about this album. Excellent!

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Nirvana - In Utero - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab
Nots - 3
  • 05/03/2019
  • By Tim Sentz