Cynical, Abrasive and Damn Near Perfect: Nirvana's In Utero, 20 Years Later
This week marks the re-release of Nirvana's In Utero. The album recently turned twenty years old, and this milestone is being celebrated with the release of a "Super Deluxe Edition." The new edition offers remixes, demos, compilation tracks and rare, previously unreleased tracks, but we wanted to take a look back at the original twelve songs recorded by core Nirvana members Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl in 1993.
By Jamie Lees
In Utero was a polarizing album. After gaining sudden worldwide popularity with the release of Nevermind in 1991, it would be an understatement to say that Nirvana's second major-label release was highly anticipated. The whole planet seemed to be paying attention and expectations were not entirely positive. People were waiting for Nirvana to flop, or to deliver Nevermind Version 2.0, but what came from the band was unexpected and brazen.
Because of sheer exposure, Nevermind was for everybody. But the songs on In Utero were a sharp departure from the pop-tinged anthems that made the band popular. In Utero was louder, weirder, an artistic statement. To release an album with a combination of beautiful dirges mixed in with such a heavily corrosive rock sound was, well, ballsy.
From the off-kilter, screeching beginning of the first song, "Serve the Servants," it is clear that the band was doing something different. And while Nevermind was written and recorded in relative obscurity, most these new songs were put together under while under the intense focus of an international microscope.
Main songwriter Cobain was keenly aware that his every word would be dissected and examined with medical precision, and many of his lyrics here are preemptive rebuttals to criticism, almost post-modern in their self-awareness. (The opening line of the album is "Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I'm bored and old" and "Tourettes" begins with the spoken phrase "moderate rock.")
Many of the classic Nirvana lyrical themes like personal dissatisfaction and family trouble continued to pop up on this album. But after a few years in the spotlight, Cobain also seemed eager to explore the topic of his own public persecution, real or imagined. His words felt more aggressive at times ("You can't fire me because I quit"), but he also seemed to ask for mercy, expressing his own vulnerability and fragility ("Cut myself on angel hair and baby's breath") throughout the album.
Cobain always claimed that, with Nirvana, the music came first and the lyrics were secondary -- that they were almost an afterthought. Not buying it, Mr. Cobain. The lyrics here that might at first read as obtuse or purposefully nonsensical eventually morph into brain poetry, exposing the deeper meanings hidden in the phrasing. ("Bipolar opposites attract/All of a sudden my water broke")
Because Cobain committed suicide less than a year after this album's release, it's tempting to go back and read all of his lyrics as deep and autobiographical, but to do that is to discount Cobain's storytelling skills. His words are clever ("If you ever need anything please don't hesitate/To ask someone else first") and he was adept at using cultural references as a jumping-off point or metaphor for another topic ("Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle").