Following the commercial success of 1991's Nevermind, Kurt Cobain and grunge outfit Nirvana were on top of the world. Kurt was given the "voice of a generation" tag, which he was reluctant to take. Nevermind featured songs that are still played on the radio today, including Smells Like Teen Spirit, In Bloom, Come As You Are, Drain You, and Polly. After releasing this album and touring, they took a break.
In December of 1992, Nirvana released Incesticide, a compilation consisting of demos, outtakes, covers, and radio recordings. After taking a long break due to exhaustion, they toured again in 1993, and were preparing their third (and unfortunately, final) studio album, called In Utero. For it, they wanted Steve Albini on production. For those not familiar with the underground music scene, Albini was the leader of influential noise rock band Big Black (a band Cobain liked), and was also in other relevant groups Rapeman and Shellac.
Albini thought of Nirvana as "REM with a fuzzbox," and accepted because he felt "sorry" for members in the band. In Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, Albini saw the underground aesthetic that Kurt, Krist, & Dave were so influenced by. Before jumping into the studio, Cobain sent Albini the PJ Harvey album Get Rid of Me as a way of showing Albini the sound the Aberdeen-based trio was going for. Recorded in Minnesota, the album only took about two weeks to complete. Cobain said it was a very smooth process, despite anticipating that there would be some tension between Albini and the band.
Though categorized as a grunge album, it doesn't have as dirty a sound as Bleach or even Nevermind. Since Albini was in a seminal noise-rock band, and Cobain himself was influenced by some noise acts like Scratch Acid, The Jesus Lizard, and The Butthole Surfers, this album was infused with more noisy, chaotic work like Radio Friendly Unit Shifter, Scentless Apprentice, and bonus track Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through The Strip.
It seems with this record that Nirvana wanted to free itself from being thought of as grunge gods. They thought the movement - if you want to call it that - was stupid. Kurt and the rest of Nirvana didn't have much respect for grunge bands in general, and it's no secret that Nirvana and Pearl Jam didn't see eye-to-eye, at least musically. It contains more diversity than a record like Nevermind, which signaled the beginning of the grunge explosion. Serve The Servants, the opening track, tells the premise of the band's feelings towards their mainstream success. "Teenage angst has paid off well, now I'm bored and old." Nirvana and all it's members reaped many economic benefits from their second album, but it isn't something they wanted to happen, and they've grown bored with it.
Heart Shaped Box, All Apologies, and Rape Me are probably the most meaningful, relevant songs of the album, and perhaps in the history of the band. Heart Shaped Box is an obvious letter to Kurt's wife - and Hole frontwoman - Courtney Love. While it's a love song, it lyrically tells tales of being trapped into marriage. Originally, the track was titled "Heart Shaped Coffin." Kurt and Courtney had a volatile relationship, and you can see it in the way it's expressed throughout the album. The lyrics are very cryptic and open to much interpretation, but clearly it's an open letter to Courtney. Much like most Nirvana songs, it leaves much to be desired musically, but the driving force behind Nirvana isn't the musical virtuosity, but the multiple meanings of the lyrics, the feel - though simplistic feel - of the music, bangin' drums, and emotional vocals.
All Apologies is probably a song at least partially related to Kurt's wife. It starts with a simplistic, less noisy intro than other songs on the record. It sounds like a song that could be on Nevermind, in other words. "In the sun, married, Buried." It becomes obvious when paying attention to the lyrics that his marriage is the root of most of his problems. Repeating "all in all is all we are" 13 times to cap the song, All Apologies might be the best song on the record. Of the meaningful songs on the album, Rape Me might be the most useful. Cobain, which made him different from most rockstars of his era, was an overt feminist, and with this song, took a definite stance against rape. It tells a story of a victim accepting their fate, but also wishing for the rapist to suffer from bad karma. "My favorite inside source, I'll kiss your open sores. Appreciate your concern, you're gonna sink and burn."
Not only does this album feature classics like the previously mentioned three, it features underrated Nirvana cuts like Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle, Dumb, Milk It, Very Ape, and Pennyroyal Tea. Without these songs, In Utero isn't nearly as good as it still is today, and he even played two of them (Dumb & Pennyroyal Tea) at Nirvana's legendary Unplugged concert. Pennyroyal Tea and Dumb are the only songs on the album that are played acoustically, and both have very creepy, dark lyrics. Dumb is about not fitting in, but pretending to just for the sake of appearing to be part of the larger group. He alludes to the popular expression 'ignorance is bliss' when he says "I think I'm dumb. Maybe I'm just happy."
Pennyroyal Tea is poisonous. Upon drinking it, you will die. However, Kurt feels like a liar and a thief for making as much money as he did off of Nevermind, and wouldn't mind harming himself. "Sit and drink pennyroyal tea, distill the life that's inside of me." The lyrics cut deep, and give indications that he is suicidal, as he did take his own life the next year. Milk It is another song about Courtney, as he makes subtle hints about the fact that Courtney Hole sometimes wrote music for Nirvana, and Kurt sometimes wrote music for Hole. Though their contributions to the other spouse's band were minimal, they were there. This song is a blatant confession that Kurt doesn't care about life anymore. "Look on the bright side, suicide."
Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle is a song about Seattle-born actress Frances Farmer (1913-1970). Though it's not about Kurt's personal life, you can tell he relates what he's read about Farmer to his own life. The hook of Kurt screaming "I miss the comfort in being sad" three times is a dead give away. The last two songs on the record, Very Ape and Tourettes, contrast in sound. Very Ape, an alternative song about the fact that Kurt's contradictions have caught up with him. There are very few lyrics in the song, as not much needs to be said. "I am buried up to my neck in, contradictionary flies." Tourettes, however, is Kurt screaming for a minute and a half.
Overall, In Utero is classic. It depends on your personal taste, but In Utero, in some ways, is a better record than Nevermind. I think it's much more diverse and captures the Nirvana sound a little better. The production isn't as glossy, and I think In Utero is a record the band was happier with, as opposed to Nevermind.