“Teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored alone”. The opening line of ‘Serve the Servants’, from Nirvana’s third and final studio release In Utero perfectly captured the feelings and thoughts of legendary angst ridden frontman Kurt Cobain at the time of its release. After gaining an astronomic rise in fame from their 1992 album Nevermind, Cobain had encapsulated the feelings of alienation, angst, loneliness and anger of a new generation in his crunchy screaming guitar riffs and melancholic metaphorical lyrics. But his newfound fame only furthered his descent into depression and drug abuse that ended with his suicide on April 5th 1994.
Now with Nevermind Nirvana had established their talent at creating incredibly powerful grunge songs with almost pop like choruses and hooks, the most recognisable being ‘Come as You are’ and the song Cobain could never escape ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’. However after the sludgy, dark, loud Bleach in 1989, Cobain viewed Nevermind as too much like pop music for his liking, so with In Utero he wanted to return to a sound more reminiscent of how he started, more punky and with way more feedback. As well as this Cobain also began incorporating more abstract and metaphorical lyrics into his songs, blurring the lines between his thoughts and feelings creating a sense of mystery around his persona which still lasts today.
If Nevermind was the clean sounding mass appeal older brother, then In Utero was the younger, louder, more brash and in your face sibling. With the exception of the exceptional ‘Dumb’ (my favourite song of all time) and the album closer ‘All Apologies’, all of In Utero’s songs are loud, screaming, spit in the music industry’s face and their expectations of what they thought Nirvana were. This isn’t even hidden in subtlety on Cobains part, the song ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’ was both a condemnation of what the music industry and the general public expected Nirvana to be, and also how Cobain thought of himself and of Nevermind. As the discordant, uncomfortable, feedback laced guitar begins crunching up in the song we hear Cobain chant quietly “Hmmm… I just wanna know….. do you like me?” as the song explodes into the signature angst ridden heavy bass lines and pulsating drums courtesy of Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, and later as Cobain wails “What is wrong with me? What do I think of me?” we can see that amidst all the hype and worldwide fame that he garnered in such a small amount of time, Cobain himself didn’t know what he was, he just knew what he wasn’t.
Although In Utero was partly a message to the world that they were not going to conform to anyone’s expectations, the album was not solely reliant on this. Cobain once again delved into his familiar territory in terms of love, depression and family. After his marriage to Courtney Love and the birth of their daughter Frances Bean in 1992, you can hear the influence of these two women on his life in his work. The famous ‘Heart Shaped Box’ was infamously written about Courtney’s vagina (“Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back”) yet from my interpretation its more about being so trusting of a person that completely let you inside them. “Hey Wait! I’ve got a new complaint. Forever in debt to your priceless advice”. As well as this the imagery of fatherhood and children appears “Cut myself on angel hair and baby’s breath”. The back of the album itself is an artwork designed by Cobain, where babies and their umbilical cords are shown lying in piles of one another surrounded by flowers.
Perhaps what is the strongest element of In Utero however, is the emotional resonance displayed by Cobain amongst the assaultive instrumentals through his lyrics. The impassioned ‘Dumb’ and ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ both delve into Cobains struggle with drugs, his famous chronic stomach pain and the intrusive effects of fame. ‘Dumb’ opens with an admission of otherness “I’m not like them, but I can pretend” and proceeds to create a hazy feeling, most likely a feeling reminiscent to that of Cobain whilst under the influence of heroin as he wrote the song “I think I’m dumb…. maybe just happy…. I think I’m just happy”. And in between bursts of Cobain’s mournful pounding guitar ‘Pennyroyal Tea’s’ lyrics paint a picture of a man in constant pain and emotional stress, whilst also having to act like a king, an icon for a generation. “Sit and drink Pennyroyal Tea, Steal the life that’s inside of me…. I’m anemic royalty…. I’m so tired I cant sleep” are just some of the words that Cobain screeches out.
In Utero was and still remains to this day, the most diverse, experimental, painful, cathartic and powerful album Nirvana ever released. So can we all stop blasting out ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ every time someone suggests listening to Nirvana?
In Utero was released on September 13th 1993 on DGC Records.