Kurt Cobain was a man full of contradictions that were so blatantly reflected on Nirvana’s music manners that one cannot but notice how confused ‘In Utero’ sounds. Nirvana’s third and final album was released in 1993, a bit before Cobain decided to leave a suicidal note screaming out ‘I haven’t felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music, along with really writing … for too many years now’.
‘In Utero’ is a requiem cried out by a man scared of the happiness he has fallen into. When great bands make it into the mainstream, they often face the dilemma of their next move. Some continue on the mainstream sounds of their last record, while others return to their roots because this is what they know to do best. Unable to face life and living in a fragile façade of self-denial, Cobain was freaked out feeling that ‘In Utero’ could not follow the huge success of ‘Nevermind’ that is Nirvana’s highest selling record and one of the most significant albums of the 90s. To overcome the stress, Cobain employed renowned punk producer Steve Albini to return to their original sounds.
The influence of Albini on the album is huge. Unlike ‘Nevermind’ that sounds sharp, polished and clean, ‘In Utero’ is rather rough, raw and noisy, approaching more a dark, disturbing, confusing feeling. Cobain’s harsh vocals with his distinctive agonized howls that almost cry out for help are the main source of emotion in the album. ‘I miss the comfort in being sad’ Cobain sings in ‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle’ and this sounds so emotionally true from a man right on the edge a few months before his unfortunate suicide. Alongside, the album’s distorted guitar riffs, powerful drumming, great songwriting and overall aggressive sounds create an amalgam of noise, emotion and power.
Cobain’s songwriting is arguably the best in ‘In Utero’. He is considered the best songwriter of his generation and this comes as no surprise considering some of the great lyrics of the album. There are times that one cannot choose the best moment among the raw emotionality of ‘Scentless Apprentice’ – Like most babies smell like butter, his smell smelled like no other, he was born scentless and senseless’, the melting energy of ‘Heart Shaped Box’ – ‘I’ve got a new complaint, forever in debt to your priceless advice’ – the guilty feeling of ‘All Apologies’ – ‘I wish I was like you, easily amused, find my nest of salt, everything is my fault’ or the inner confession of ‘Dumb’ that is, in effect, Cobain’s struggle to come to terms with a settled life – ‘I think I’m dumb or maybe just happy’.
With these true diamonds along with ‘Rape Me’, a raw punk rock sound-like track and ‘Milk It’ that represents the aggressive and more experimental sounds that Nirvana explore in the album, ‘In Utero’ went 5x Platinum, sold four million copies in the US and gathered critical praise.
Would ‘In Utero’ be so successful had Cobain not committed suicide? I don’t think there is an answer to this one. For a musical perspective, the album is not perfect and if one was to acclaim a Nirvana’s album as classic, this will arguably be ‘Nevermind’. However, the emotion of ‘In Utero’ that is expressed so aggressively and roughly, so desperately and unceasingly cannot be ignored. To my view, no matter on which side one stands, ‘In Utero’ is one of the best albums of the 90s and Cobain’s suicide just adds up to it’s legend.