It’s been 20 years since Nirvana’s generation defining, multi-platinum selling number one album was released. The album that regularly makes “best album ever” lists. The album credited with the death of poodle-hair rock. The album that made the underground explode into the mainstream, but oh well, whatever - Nevermind.
Cobain’s finest hour came almost exactly two years after Nevermind with what was tragically his final work - In Utero. The dark themes, the raw sound and overall lyrical superiority showcase the best of what the man had to offer. The minimal production on the album from Steve Albini reflected the band’s desire to shake off the radio-friendly image that Nevermind had earned them. Some of this was lost with Scott Lit touching up the album at the 11th hour but upon a first listen to In Utero you will agree that the rawness certainly remained captured. Kurt’s untamed screams define the album; in particular on tracks Scentless Apprentice, Rape Me and Tourettes.
It was the album that Cobain wanted to make - on his terms. It was recorded in just two weeks in an isolated corner of Minnesota. The speed and unpolishedness of the album would have appealed to his punk rock influences. It is often rumoured that he recorded his vocals for the album in a mere six hours. The gloomy themes leaked right off the record onto its front and back covers. Even the more commercial exponents of the album are cloaked in darkness - Heart-Shaped Box features some of the most surreal lyrics you will ever hear on a song released as a lead single: “Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back.”
The genius of Cobain is shown perfectly on the quieter tracks - in amongst a loud onslaught of an album - it is in these subtle moments where we are left to focus on his words
Kurt expresses his intent to bare his most personal work to the world just 23 seconds in to this lesser celebrated work: “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old”. The musical aggression and loudness will blow Come As You Are right down your top played list on iTunes. Dave Grohl’s drumming on tracks such as Scentless Apprentice through to the sheer volume of Milk It vibrate right through your core upon each listen. It is, as earlier stressed, the coarseness of this album that separates it from the indie-disco staples that make up its predecessor. Don’t tell me I’m the only one sick of hearing Smells Like Teen Spirit played every week nicely nestled between This Charming Man and Parklife?
But if it is the rough and ready loudness of the music that makes this album more exciting than Nevermind, it’s the depth and emotion of the lyrics that illustrate its substance and quality. This is seen nowhere better than in the rare moments of calm. Dumb and All Apologies are both individual masterpieces, and surprise surprise, they’re both here on In Utero. “My heart is broke but I have some glue/Help me inhale and mend it with you”, the touching and sensitive gems like this make the album almost heart breaking to listen to. It also opens up the dreaded “what might have been” line of thinking and it is tantalising.
The genius of Cobain is shown perfectly on the quieter tracks - in amongst a loud onslaught of an album - it is in these subtle moments where we are left to focus on his words that he is most intense. All Apologies is a glorious close – a slower number to bring the whole thing together. And no doubt any conspiracy theory lovers will relish the irony of the “Married/Buried” line in the dying minutes of Cobain’s last release.
Nevermind has some great moments, but what got lost with the hype at the time and the attrition of Nevermind-worshipping articles that have followed for years since, is the fact that they made more than one album. If you haven’t heard In Utero before – you should. It will help to remember that there was a lot more to Kurt Cobain than catchy “yeah yeah yeaaaaah” choruses and that riff.
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