Nirvana's In Utero Record at 30
Today we’re taking a quick look at Nirvana’s In Utero record as it turns 30
By the time Nirvana released In Utero, I was kind of over them. It was (relatively) inescapable, but I only paid attention when it was unavoidable. I’d decided that I wouldn’t (shouldn’t?) like it, and that was that. I didn’t own a copy until almost ten years later, and even that comes with an asterisk– it was my wife who brought her copy to the party. A party turning 22 today, by the way.
I’m not sure when the last time I played it front to back in one sitting was. I’m also not entirely sure that’s ever happened.
Part of that incuriosity was down to my insufferable gatekeeping mindset back then, but the reality was this: I had first heard the songs from Bleach live before I heard them on cassette. I can remember how “Negative Creep” was introduced as something that “would be coming out soon” and how it felt like the best kind of kick to the head. The rest of the record was more of the same.
Nevermind came out not too long after, and well, we all know what happened next. It was the end of a brand for Mennen and the beginning of an era for “alternative music.” And let me say this: In short order, “Alternative” would become a punchline, the music being more mainstream than whatever it was supposed to be a substitute for that would come soon enough. In 1991, Pearl Jam’s Ten and this were a vicious 1-2 combo for a world not quite ready for it, but in hindsight, better for having had them both happen.
At the time, it sure didn’t feel that way, though. The same people that would sneer at Bleach were suddenly all over Nevermind. More and more backward hats started showing up at shows. Looking at it through a 2023 lens, it’s easy to take that as a good thing; more people means more success for a band, which, as a fan, you should want, right?
Maybe, but in the early 90s, the opposite was true. Success was equated with selling out. For those that weren’t there, it’s hard to describe this absurdity–think ‘tone policing and purity tests–but I can tell you this; t-shirts that said “corporate rock sucks” were (ironically) very popular, and a band signing to major label was largely greeted with disdain (Exhibit A: Jawbreaker & their Dear You album). But before that record, we had In Utero. In hindsight, I wonder how much of that indifference was projection. I mean, God forbid I actually like a hit record, right?
When Kurt Cobian snarled Hey wait/ I got a new complaint on “Heart-shaped Box,” I could only nod along in agreement. I had one, too– and mine was that the music I’d leaned on to escape the reality of high school had been co-opted by my tormentors. On some level, Cobain agreed.
"Of course, they want another Nevermind, but I'd rather die than do that. This is exactly the kind of record I would buy as a fan, that I would enjoy owning."
So the band set out to make the kind of record they’d want to listen to at home. Not a “record for fans” per se, but for their pre-Nevermind fans. In other words, people like me. In Utero doesn’t sound entirely like a band trying to reclaim its sound/credibility, but it sounds just enough like one to make it seem plausible. When the first line of the opening track is “Teenage angst has paid off well/ Now I'm bored and old,” what else are we supposed to think?
To make the record, the band teamed up with producer Steve Albini, who, having previously dismissed them as “R.E.M. with a fuzzbox,” sold them on working together after writing them his now infamous “like a plumber” proposal.
Pairing with Albini went a long way towards clawing back a bit of street cred with fans. So the band headed east on I-90, ending up at Pachyderm Studios in the booming metropolis of Cannon Falls, Minnesota.
Recording took two weeks. Either the band knew exactly what they wanted to say or had a low tolerance for February in Minnesota. Probably both. Bleach is raw energy & angst. Nevermind is white heat & fury with a glaze of polish over the top. In Utero is much more aggressive than its predecessor. It’s sludgy. There are a lot of shrieks and barks and not a lot of gloss. Some tracks were recorded in the kitchen for its reverb. There is a horribly misinterpreted track (“Rape me”). DGC hated the mixing, and eventually, Scott Litt was called in to remix the tracks intended as singles.
All par for the course on a record that Cobain originally wanted to call I Hate Myself And I Want To Die.
Despite–or maybe in spite–of it all, the album had its share of mainstream success. The aforementioned “Heart-Shaped Box” was a hit and came with an Anton Corbijn-directed video. “All Apologies” was a more subdued track. It was no less popular but far less cynical. As of this writing, the record has sold over 15 million copies. If Cobain could sing with the slightest note of optimism, maybe there was hope for us all.
We never got the chance to find out.
Cobian lost all hope and was gone before we got to see where the band would go next. Some people wanted them to keep going back to their roots. I read somewhere that Cobain was hinting at something less distorted and more subtle. We’ll never know.
But we know this: in making a record intended to throw off fans & shed the perceptions of what they’d become, they wound up making a record that sounds as good now as it did then.
If only I’d been listening.
Nirvana | In Utero, 1993
Click the record to listen on the platform of your choice.
What are your thoughts on this record? Do you have any favorite tracks or memories associated with it? At 30, does it still hold up? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Thanks for being here,
P.S. Lively up your inbox! Every day The Sample forwards you a newsletter to discover. The more you use it, the better it gets at delivering what you want.