Review Summary: A sadly lacking farewell note from a band that had done so much better.
The year was 1993, and Nirvana were the biggest thing in the musical world. Well, maybe not the biggest
, but they were certainly one of the most revered bands in the alternative, hard rock and punk scene, as well as a viable commercial force, fuelled by the astounding success of their magnum opus, Nevermind
This new-found fame, however, did not sit well with the band’s two, notoriously elusive head honchos, who would have reckoned without all the glitz, glamour and bright lights. For bass player Chris Novoselic, it was merely a question of shyness: the gentle giant was perfectly happy away from the limelight, and has stayed there since the group’s dissolution. For frontman and tortured genius Kurt Cobain, however, it went beyond that. The singer, guitarist and songwriter hated that there were now spoiled sorority girls blasting Smells Like Teen Spirit
at their dorm slumber parties, seeing it as a betrayal of the spirit in which he had formed Nirvana, and publicly stated, time and again, how much he had come to hate Nevermind
in the two years since its release. Furthermore, his personal life was also in turmoil, with both his growing addictions and his recent marriage to Courtney Love (and subsequent fathering of Frances Bean Cobain) constantly under public scrutiny. The whole thing was doing him in, and in that context, it comes as no surprise that such personal issues should fuel his songwriting in what was to be the group’s third full length release, In Utero
Unbeknownst to the band, the controversial 1993 release - Initially intended as merely a departure from the overtly commercial sound of Nevermind
towards a more experimental approach – was also to be their last. A mere few months after its release and promotion, the scraggly, rail-thin icon of a generation would finally put an end to it all, in what remains, to this day, one of the most tragic deaths in rock’n’roll history. In Utero
was, then, inevitably left with the huge burden of representing a legendary band’s last milestone; and, in that regard, it is with overwhelming sadness that one must admit that it does not do a very good job of it.
In fact, historical connotations aside, In Utero
is undoubtedly Nirvana’s weakest studio album, raising the perennial question of whether Cobain’s untimely departure was not for the best. While the attempts at maturity and experimentation are undoubtedly commendable, the songwriting as a whole is several notches below what the group had presented on Nevermind
, or even their debut, Bleach
. The second half of the album, in particular, suffers horribly from a surplus of filler, and while there are a few gems to be found in these 45 minutes, they tend to be brought down a notch by the less interesting tracks, making for an overall underwhelming package.
Not that the group were not trying, though. In Utero
is an incredibly personal album, a sort of catalyst for Cobain to purge his inner demons in the form of loud, brash riffs and tortured, screeched vocals. As noted, the frontman’s lyrics are at their most personal in this one, with no less than two songs being love letters to wife Courtney Love, and most of the others dealing with sensitive issues for Cobain, such as his relationship with his father (Serve The Servants
), his disdain for his own celebrity status (Radio Friendly Unit Shifter
) or his escape into chemical bliss (Dumb
, Pennyroyal Tea
). Unfortunately, the musical side of things leaves a lot to be desired, preventing these songs from being the haunting psychoanalytical tool they might otherwise have been.
Early on, things do seem promising. The first few songs have catchy hooks and interesting riffs, the sort Cobain had gotten listeners used to with the band’s previous releases. Serve The Servants
, Rape Me
and Heart Shaped Box
are all very strong numbers, with the latter two asserting themselves as the first two standouts of the album. Similarly, Dumb
is perhaps the best song on the album, with the addition of a cello proving crucial in heightening the track’s melancholy ambiance. However, even this early, the presence of filler already makes itself felt, with Scentless Apprentice
wasting a great, surprisingly modern-metallic riff on an overall uninteresting track, and Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle
being unremarkably bland. Overall, however, at this stage, it still seems like the album is headed in the right direction. It does not take long, though, before everything falls apart.
In fact, after Dumb
, the album loses whatever footing it had and goes completely downhill, immersing itself in a mire of filler from which it very narrowly escapes. For a span of four tracks or so, the listener is left with precious little to cling to, other than the catchy chorus to Pennyroyal Tea
– again, a promising element wasted on an unremarkable track. The rest of what makes up this portion of the album is among the worst Nirvana has ever written, and rivals the second half of Incesticide
as the low point in the band’s career.
Proceedings only pick up again on the very last stretch, with the final two tracks negating everything that came before them, and bringing Nirvana back up to their usual standard of quality. Tourette’s
is Territorial Pissings
on steroids, a furious two-minute blast of semi-coherent anger which equates to a musical primal scream and carries all the force of one; All Apologies
, on the other hand, is the complete opposite, a hauntingly heartfelt semi-acoustic plea for redemption from Courtney Love, the echo of which stays with the listener long after the disposable noisefest of Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flowing Through The Strip
has closed out the album. Overall, these two songs very nearly manage to redeem In Utero
, but ultimately fall prey to the sheer mediocrity of the album’s middle portion.
As it stands, then, In Utero
is a chronically bi-polar album – to the extent where, if one were to swap Scentless Apprentice
and Frances Farmer
and All Apologies
, the album would be divided into two perfectly split halves in terms of quality. But while this duality may be a perfect reflection of Cobain’s mindset at the time, it sadly makes for a very poor farewell letter from the band. Standouts may seem aplenty for such a supposedly poor opus, but, much like with Back In Black
, there is absolutely nothing of interest beyond them. It may be, as Cobain said, ”better to burn out than to fade away”
, but sadly, with In Utero
, Nirvana manage nothing larger than a sizzle.
Heart Shaped Box