Review Summary: A stunning final album from Nirvana, full of power, emotion and beauty.
When bands break through into the mainstream, they are often left with a huge dilemma when plotting their next moves. There are two main options that bands tend to go for. The first of these is to expand on the sound captured on their last offering, going for huge mainstream success while adding to their ever increasing fan bases. The other common option is to return to their roots, often upsetting the more mainstream fans but pleasing more loyal followers. This was a problem faced by a number of bands in the early nineties, such as Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Soundgarden and probably most notably, Nirvana.
The Seattle trio had exploded onto the scene in 1991 with the surprise success of their second album, Nevermind, which benefited from the publicity and productive sheen that come from being on a major label. It did help that Nevermind
was also a brilliant album, which to this day is still regarded as one of the all time greats. Of all of the grunge and alt rock bands wondering what to do with their new found success, Nirvana had arguably the toughest task. But while those bands mentioned earlier went for the first option, Nirvana took up the second, employing legendary underground punk producer Steve Albini, and writing songs with a greater resemblance to their earlier works.
The influence Albini has on this album is huge, as his production plays a huge part in the albums sound. Nevermind
’s sound was polished, sharp and clean, with the album ultimately benefiting from this approach. In Utero’s
could barely be more different, with a rougher, rawer and noisier edge, far less comfortable on the ears. But while Albini’s approach would most likely have made Nevermind
a disaster, it works perfectly on In Utero
, providing an atmosphere that was almost completely absent from its predecessor. His production gives the album a dark, unsettling feel, something that only received more attention after singer Kurt Cobain’s unfortunate suicide, only months after the albums release.
The other catalysts behind the In Utero’s
terrific atmosphere are of course the band members and the songs they perform. The most obvious of these is Kurt Cobain himself, and it’s his presence that provides the biggest contribution to the album’s sound. His vocals are harsh on the ears, with his distinctive tortured howls more abundant than ever before. It’s these screams that provide the main source of emotion, which there is certainly a lot of, as you would expect from an album made by a man right on the edge.
The period in which In Utero
was written was also, arguably the time when Cobain’s songwriting skills reached their peak. The fact that he is considered by many the best songwriter of his generation and that many of his greatest moments are on this album speaks for itself. The albums two finest songs almost totally contrast each other, showing the diversity of Cobain’s talents. Scentless Apprentice
is a song that represents almost all of In Utero’s
qualities. It’s aggressive, raw and emotional to the point where it could easily be described as depressing. As well as all that, the song features fantastic performances from all band members. Cobain’s loose guitar and Krist Novoselic’s bass complement each other beautifully, especially on the fantastic main riff, which is easily the heaviest the band ever wrote. Add the typically powerful drumming from Dave Grohl, and the song becomes a melting pot of noise, emotion and power, providing the album an early highlight. All Apologies
meanwhile is a far softer moment, arguably the most beautiful song Cobain ever wrote. His voice in particular mixes with the brilliant melody to wonderful results, making this song a stunning way to end the album.
Even with these songs however, the music on In Utero
is certainly not flawless. The songs, while all excellent when played individually generally aren’t as good as those on Nevermind
. There are no obvious single choices, mainly due to the uncommercial production and songwriting style, so it’s really no surprise that none of the promo’s released from this album rivaled Smells Like Teen Spirit
in terms of mainstream success. There are even some songs such as Very Ape
that could be considered filler, despite still being thoroughly enjoyable.
The main reason why none of these potential flaws bring the album down is the fantastic atmosphere previously mentioned. The album works almost perfectly as a whole, meaning that even the lesser songs fit well, and contribute to the albums continuous flow. Mellow moments such as Dumb
also blend well with the heavier ones, sometimes providing relief from the weight of the material around them. Because of this, In Utero
is not only a successful successor to Nevermind
, but easily equals, if not surpasses it in quality.
Would In Utero
be a classic had Cobain not killed himself? Questions like these are fired at all so called “classic” albums made under these sorts of circumstances, and are perfectly relevant here. The answer? Maybe, maybe not, opinions on the matter will always vary. Musically, the album is not perfect, and as mentioned earlier the songs aren’t all flawless. But the weight of the emotion on this album makes it simply impossible to ignore. With hindsight, we can now understand and appreciate this emotion in a way that would not have been possible at the time. Even if Cobain hadn’t committed suicide, the album is a very strong and powerful collection of songs, capable of bringing joy, amazement and in some cases uneasiness to the listener. It is true that some albums made by deceased musicians have become overrated because of the actions of their makers. In Utero
, however, is not one of these, and as a result is rightly considered one of the greatest albums of all time by music critics and fans alike.
Serve The Servants