If you aren't familiar with Nirvana's sophomore release, 1991's Nevermind, you were probably born after the Y2K scare or believe that music peaked when Rush released Moving Pictures. The work from the Seattle grungesters — which brought true alternative rock to mainstream radio airplay with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come As You Are,” and “Lithium” — is considered by many to be the most important rock album of the last three decades. We disagree. In fact, we don't even think it's Nirvana's best work.
That distinction belongs to 1993's In Utero, which found the three piece at their rawest, believe it or not. (Even more so than on their 1989 debut Bleach.) Though the album is overlooked today, it's a masterpiece both in its songwriting and its production. Further, it was promoted in very novel ways. Let's dive in!
In Utero's singles are great, for starters. “Heart Shaped Box” is said to be about Courtney Love's, well, you know, but don't hold that against it. “Rape Me” is explosive. But perhaps the album's greatest strength is its production. Mastermind Steve Albini, of Illinois punk act Big Black, produced In Utero in a grueling two-week stretch, where he combined Kurt Cobain's lyrics with aggressive riffs and oft-outlandish mixing techniques. Combined with Geffen's grassroots marketing techniques for the album's release, such as bypassing Top 40 radio in lieu of college stations, In Utero's injection into the mainstream was anything but.
Nevermind actually had a somewhat polished sound, but In Utero mixed the vocals down and isolated Cobain's howls. It was an abrasiveness reminiscent of Bleach; this may have been why the band's label Geffen wasn't pleased. But Albini refused to remix the album over, and only “Heart Shaped Box” and “All Apologies” got much of a makeover. The public debate over Albini's recording methods has made In Utero controversial among Nirvana fans for years.
Compared with Nevermind, there's less angst and more anguish on In Utero and that's a good thing — as concerns Cobain's art, that is, if not his mental health. His internal demons are fully displayed through the manic screams on songs like “Scentless Apprentice,” which alludes to his internal torture in its “go away, get away, get away” chorus.
“Heart Shaped Box,” meanwhile, sounds more like a hostage's plea than an admission of love.
Released just seven months before his suicide, In Utero was Cobain's encapsulation of an internal world he grew to hate. Almost 20 years later, the album continues to shed light on the cracks in Cobain's rock star facade, and continues to influence the work of others.