Review Summary: One of rock's ultimate middle fingers.
I've always found it fascinating how different each band in the "Big 4 of Grunge" is, even though they were placed under the same label. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Alice in Chains all had a large amount of popularity in the 90s grunge scene, but were all successful in certain niches within it. Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, for instance, had a huge following in the metal scene (particularly when Dirt came out in 1992 and Badmotorfinger in 1991), and Pearl Jam was usually enjoyed by fans of the more polished side of alternative rock. However, I like to consider Nirvana the jack of all trades. While many people heavily criticize the band to this day for certain things - such as the late Kurt Cobain's apathetic vocal delivery or a more simplistic approach to songwriting - their stylistic diversity meant that, at least in theory, there was something for everyone. Want polished grunge music that still has plenty of grit? Listen to the classic Nevermind. Or maybe something that has that a more punk-inspired feel? Listen to their debut Bleach. And what about the work that just throws the rulebook out the window and says "fuck you" to typical conventions? In Utero.
Following Nevermind's success, Cobain wanted to create something that altered the band's sound to a huge degree, even hiring hardcore punk/noise rock legend Steve Albini to be the producer. It was pretty damn clear that Cobain was out to write something visceral, harsh, noisy, and certainly not commercially accessible. I mean, with prior knowledge of the band's past efforts, who could have expected the dissonant and noisy guitar chord that introduces opener "Serve the Servants?" This is not to say that the entire record is completely unconventional though, as numerous songs still have solid catchy hooks and there are some great ballads in the mix. In fact, hit single "Heart Shaped Box" could be considered the best of both worlds in this case; the beauty of the softer portions creates a fantastic contrast to the heavily distorted chorus, and Kurt's vocals follow these dynamic shifts accordingly. "All Apologies" is definitely the most accessible song on the entire record, offering a more somber approach to finish the overall experience off.
But these moments are few and far between, as the distortion and rawness reign supreme on this album. Steve Albini decided to ditch the compressed production that Nevermind utilized, opting for something more intense and natural. As a result, many of the songs end up sounding either uncompromisingly noisy or more on the hollow side; both sounds work extremely well with their respective tunes, however. But, no matter how good the production of a record is, it still boils down to how good the songwriting and instrumentation are... and this is where the album especially shines. In Utero is absolutely NOT for everyone; in contrast to Nevermind but not totally unlike Bleach, In Utero is an album of irreverence and unpredictability. I already mentioned the clash of notes that begins the album's opener, but moments like that one are littered throughout the experience. "Rape Me," for instance, sounds like an easy rip-off of something from Nevermind (primarily "Smells Like Teen Spirit") until Kurt just completely loses it at the end and screams "RAPE ME" over and over again. It's insane, but it's effective. Then there are songs like "Milk It" and "Radio-Friendly Unit Shifter," which just say "screw it" and offer completely unconventional songwriting decisions out of nowhere.
However, when you get down to it, it's the intent that proves to be really inspiring here. I won't deny that there are some weak moments on this record, primarily the short songs that don't seem to go anywhere ("Dumb" and "Tourette's" quickly come to mind), but the vision is what shines through the weaknesses. This is a trio who made it big with an incredibly iconic and best-selling alternative rock record, and then promptly gave the proverbial middle finger to the record industry - and, of course, the fame - by making something that only their diehard fans could really appreciate. That takes balls, and the record's high level of relevance and freshness in today's rock/metal music proves that it was Nirvana who got the last laugh... despite Cobain's unfortunate demise.
Despite the fact that drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic are still playing music and honoring Kurt's memory today (Dave in particular leading an incredibly successful career with the Foo Fighters), this record really makes you wonder what would have happened if the frontman was still alive. Considering how much In Utero shook up the band's established formula, who knows what the next album would have been like? Regardless, this album still stands as Nirvana's crowning achievement. It's pretty tough to get into for some, but the rewards for listening to such a raw and powerful record are vast if you give it enough time. Nirvana might be dead, but their spirit lives on.