Review Summary: It may be a shame that this had to be the last album for Nirvana, but they left on their grandest artistic statement ever.
Nirvana were an Alternative Rock band from Seattle, Washington, who got their start in the Seattle underground, which featured a variety of artists that pioneered the Grunge subgenre, a form of Alternative Rock that fuses elements of Punk music and Heavy Metal. Nirvana was founded by Frontman/Guitarist Kurt Cobain, and Bassist Krist Novacelic. They ended up going through a succession of drummers before permanently landing Dave Grohl behind the kit starting with their second album.
They released their debut album ‘’Bleach’’ in 1989, which was characterized by raw, heavy instrumentation, sparse lyrics, and a suppression of Cobain’s more arty and pop songwriting traits in favor of more straight-ahead grunge elements, due to pressure from their label at the time, Sub-Pop. They would burst into the mainstream with their 1991 album ‘’Nevermind’’. The album is a Grunge masterpiece with massive crossover appeal, whose songs have stood the test of time and continue to be loved today by millions of people.
By comparison, ‘’In Utero’’ is just as timeless, however the songs on this album have much less pop appeal than ‘’Nevermind’’. That’s not to say that we didn’t have any songs with crossover appeal, the singles ''Heart-Shaped Box'' and ''All Apologies'' were big hits, with the latter getting its own acoustic rendition on MTV Unplugged. Even the deep cut ''Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle'' wouldn’t sound out of place on ‘’Nevermind’’. But for every song you have that would fit in on mainstream rock radio, you have one that is an entirely new and experimental idea, brimming with aggression, and caked in Noise Rock influences.
While ‘’Nevermind’’ is considered by many critics to be Nirvana’s defining moment, ‘’In Utero’’ is the preferred album by a lot of hardcore fans, and even if you disagree with them, it isn’t hard to understand why. When compared to the previous outing, ‘’In Utero’’ definitely does feel like it does a better job at making a huge artistic statement, as well as capturing Kurt Cobain’s essence as a songwriter. The themes of this album explore Cobain’s frustration with the music industry and his newfound fame, as well as the media’s perception of him, and even his own fans perception of him. With the power of hindsight, this album can be very depressing when it’s themes are analyzed, as the depression stemming from Cobain’s aforementioned issues, as well as his heroin addiction, would result in him committing suicide on April 5th, 1994.
The lyrics do a very good job of conveying these themes while still sounding mature and fitting into the context of what Nirvana is doing on this record musically. From the shot at the dissection of every aspect of Cobain’s life by the media on ''Serve The Servants'', to Kurt singing to his wife and daughter on ''All Apologies'', ‘’In Utero’’ covers a wide array of topics while still staying true to the central themes. Some of the best lyrical moments on the album include the previously mentioned shot at the media on ''Serve The Servants (‘’That legendary divorce is such a bore’’), Kurt’s scathing burial of the music industry on ''Frances Farmer…'' (‘’It’s so soothing, to know that you’ll sue me’’), and the best of all being the cryptically written tribute to child cancer patients on arguably the best song on the album, ''Heart-Shaped Box''. (‘’Forever in debt to your priceless advice’’). The lyrics on this album can be a gut-punch in certain places if you take into account the mental torment that Kurt went through as a result of his own success, but they can also be strikingly beautiful at the same time. Cobain was at the top of his game in 1991-93 when it came to songwriting, and it’s a shame we lost him so soon after he hit his stride.
When it comes to the individual tracks on this album, there’s rarely a dull moment. Most tracks on this album are great, and even the select one or two that aren’t great are still pretty good. ''Heart-Shaped Box'' is my favorite on the album due to it’s memorable guitar work and fantastic lyrics/performances, and ''All Apologies'' is not far behind. The latter song’s simplicity works to its advantage, this makes the repetitive outro captivating rather than annoying. The song works as a great closer to the album, and when an album can get that right, it makes the entire experience that much better.
Out of the experimental, Noise Rock inspired tracks, ''Milk It'' is easily the best one. Kurt Cobain’s vocals on this song are amazing, and he sounds completely tortured here. The heavy and noisy riffs complement this perfectly, and the cryptic lyrics as well as the vocal melody, and even the ending of the song, are fantastic. Following that we have a song that was intended to be the 3rd single on the album, but its release was canceled due to the suicide of Kurt Cobain. The song is called ''Pennyroyal Tea'', and it is another great song. The verses are kind of standard, however the lyrics set the tone very well, and the chorus is what makes this song awesome. The melody is great and Kurt’s vocals fit very well, it’s easily another standout moment on the album.
Another standout moment on the album, comes in the form of ''Rape Me'', an anti-rape song, with the message basically boiling down to the victim being strong enough to get through the traumatic experience, with lines like ‘’I’m not the only one’’. Cobain was actually a well known feminist, and lyrics like this really convey that in an interesting way. The ending of the song with Kurt yelling the title into the microphone wraps up this song in a very good way as well. This song was released along with ''All Apologies'' as a double A-side for the album’s second single.
Other favorites here include ''Radio Friendly Unit Shifter'', which features some great riffs and a great vocal performance from Kurt to match the enjoyable chorus, ''Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle'' which has great lyrics addressing the cynicism in the music industry and music media, ''Dumb'' which focuses on Kurt inability to be happy around this time, ''Serve The Servants'' which is a great opening track, and ''Scentless Apprentice'', which is the first noise rock inspired track on the album, and while not nearly as good as some others, is really harrowing with Kurt screaming ‘’go away’’ in the chorus. The song also has some great verses, and some cryptic but smart lyrics addressing the album’s core themes.
Those songs are all great, but there’s also a couple that don’t stand out as much, despite being good songs as well. My least favorite unfortunately happens to be ''Tourette’s'' which I do like quite a bit, but it feels much less interesting than other songs on the album, with the screaming from Kurt being done much better on ''Scentless Apprentice'' and especially ''Milk It''. The other straggler here is ''Very Ape'' which I know a lot of people really like, and I think it is a solid track, just not as good as most other songs here. The song feels much less fleshed out, and this isn’t as much of a problem as it is on ''Tourette's'', but it’s still a noticeable flaw. However, I want to stress that there is not one bad song on this album, and every single track is worth at least one listen.
Overall, ‘’In Utero’’ is a triumph in Nirvana’s short but exceptional catalog, and is essential listening for any Rock fan. I must say that it doesn’t feel like a definitive final album, but considering that it wasn’t intended to be, I’m not going to dock points for that. I also want to shout out producer Steve Albini, he did a fantastic job making this record sound raw and noisy, leaving in all the shots of guitar feedback to counter the squeaky clean production of ‘’Nevermind’’. It’s a shame that this had to be the final moment for Kurt Cobain and Nirvana as a whole, but what a record to go out on. The legacy of Nirvana will live on forever in my mind not because of their merchandise being seen as trendy, or because Kurt’s life continues to be studied as if he was a demigod or a member of some alien species, but because he, Krist Novacelic, and Dave Grohl, made some of the best music that Alternative has to offer, and for me, that’s more than enough.
Final Score- 4.5/5
Favorites- Heart Shaped Box, All Apologies, Milk It, Pennyroyal Tea, Rape Me, Radio Friendly Unit Shifter, Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle, Dumb, Serve The Servants
Least Favorites- Tourette's, Very Ape