I recently bought Nirvana's third and final album, In Utero. Upon listening to it, I decided to write a review.
Album: In Utero
Released: September 21, 1993
Recorded: February 12, 1993-February 26, 1993
Label: DGC Records (Division of Geffen Records)
Producer: Steve Albini & Scott Litt
All Music Guide: 5/5 stars
Robert Christgau: A
Entertainment Weekly: B+
Q: 4/5 stars
Rolling Stone: 4.5/5 stars
Billboard Top 100: 1
Spin Best Albums of 1993: 3
Rolling Stone Album of the Year (Critics Pick): 1
Entertainment Weekly Top Albums of the Year: 5
Mojo Top 100 Albums of 1993: 13
Kerrang! 100 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die (Editors): 1
Kerrang! 100 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die (Readers): 2
Q Best 50 Albums of Q's Lifetime: 20
Spin 50 Most Essential Punk Records: 13
Spin 90 Greatest Albums of the '90s: 18
Magnet Top 60 Albums, 1933-1993: 2
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time: 439
Pitchfork Media Top 100 Albums of the 1990s: 13
Spin 100 Greatest Albums, 1985-2005: 51
Q Best 100 Albums Ever: 22
Backstory: I was possessed to buy In Utero after reading an article by Jim DeRogatis in his book Milk It! About Nirvana and the recording process of In Utero. DeRogatis expressed how he thought that Nirvana's third and final studio album might be there best, even better than mega-hit Nevermind. Nirvana, after all, had it all going for them. They were going into recording with one of the biggest names in the alternative scene, Steve Albini, of Big Black and Shellac fame. Albini had worked on such hits as the Pixies' Surfer Rosa, which happened to be Kurt Cobain's favorite album. However, Albini is notorious for mixing the vocal tracks lower in the songs, making them harder to hear over the guitars. The members of Nirvana were happy with how In Utero sounded in the studio, but once they took it home the realized that the vocals were harder to hear than they wanted them to be. Albini, also being notoriously strict, would not allow Nirvana back into his studio to remix their work, so they were forced to remix it with a Geffen Records technician, fueling speculation that Geffen considered the album to be "unreleaseable" and that they were making Nirvana make it more radio-friendly. Geffen denied all of this. So what does this album sound like? Let's take a look (the reviews consist of my initial reaction in first hearing the song mixed with later listening. Also, this album has a lot of famous lines, so bear with me.):
1. "Serve the Servants"
The album opens with the resounding line "Teenage angst has paid off well." Despite a great opening line, the album does not open with the same raw power approach of Nevermind with "Smells Like Teen Spirit." If any of you are familiar with recent music and artists, this song sounds like a song from The Vines. Cobain's voice nearly mirrors frontman Craig Nicholls'. This song has a more calm air than I was expecting when I put this in and cranked up the volume. Even the disjointed guitar solo sounds laidback along with Cobain's vocals. The vocals remain "normal" until the last note of the song when Cobain lets out a small scream. The chorus of this song, "Serve the servants, oh no," intrigues me, as it seems that Cobain is implying (with the "oh no") that serving the servants would be taboo in today's society. My little opinion there. This is not quite the opener I was expecting, but after listening to it a few times, it is a great song.
2. "Scentless Apprentice"
"Scentless Apprentice" opens with pounding drums from Dave Grohl and disjointed guitar until it settles into a constant riff. For each line Cobain backs off into feedback, restoring the riff between lines. The chorus is essentially a scream. This song could be classified as a headbanger, as I find myself subconsciously moving along with the beat. The bass, everpresent in Nirvana songs, is right along with the drums. Looking at the lyrics, it is unclear exactly who Kurt is referring to, and none of the lines really stick out except for the last one, "Throw me in the fire and I won't throw a fit." This song is a trademark of Albini recording, as Albini frequently used vocal effects. On the chorus, Cobain's scream appears as if it is covered by a film. The song is reminiscent of the Big Black (Albini's band) song "Kerosine." In listening to both, I have found that the words are essentially interchangeable.
3. "Heart-Shaped Box"
One of the most famous songs off of In Utero, it opens with arpeggiated guitar chords, while drums and bass go along with it. This continues until the chorus when Cobain is unleashed and shouts "Hey / Wait / I've got a new complaint / Forever in debt to your priceless advice." The second verse follows the suit of the first verse and then after the second verse is a guitar solo, in which the bass line appears to be mixed very high in the song, almost above the guitar. After the third verse, the song ends with an extended chorus. This is one of Nirvana's greatest hits, and I agree. There isn't as much to write about it, but listening to it is enough explanation.
4. "Rape Me"
Following one of Nirvana's most famous songs is its most controversial (I'm looking at you, Wal-Mart). "Rape Me" opens with the quiet lines, "Rape me / Rape me my friend / Rape me / Rape me again" before exploding into the chorus of "I'm not the only one." After the second verse and second chorus is the bridge with some of the most famous lines of the song, "My favorite inside source / I'll kiss your open sores." Despite all the controversy, this song follows the typical Nirvana formula of quiet verse, loud chorus, quiet verse. This is often considered an overrated Nirvana song, but I see no reason for that classification.
5. "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle"
Frances Farmer, for those of you who don't know, was an actress during the 1930's who fell into the pitfalls of drugs derailing her career. Cobain and his wife Courtney Love were infatuated with Farmer, who became the namesake for their daughter, Frances Bean, according to Jim DeRogatis' book Milk It!. According to Wikipedia, Frances Bean was named after Frances McKee of The Vaselines. This song has probably the least famous of Cobain's famous lines. The said line is the chorus of "I miss the comfort in being sad." The song opens with palm muted chords that explode before settling back into palm mutation. The pattern continues in the verse until the famous chorus and some typical Cobain groaning until the great breakdown of the song. The song ends after a final chorus after the breakdown.
The guitar is extremely active at the beginning of "Dumb." The best line of the song is "I'm not like them / But I can pretend." The eeriest part of the song is the wailing cello on the second verse. The cello is present throughout the entire song, but it is at its apex during the second verse.
7. "Very Ape"
The disjointed chords have another guitar track dubbed over them which Cobain sings along with. I have trouble finding the bass in this song. The lyrics have very little meaning to me and there isn't anything particular grabbing about the song. That was my initial review. After listening to it a few times, I have found the song to be pretty good actually. I initially liked the next song, "Milk It" better, but after listening to both multiple times, my love for "Milk It" has waned. "Very Ape" is actually a very good song.
8. "Milk It"
The song opens with drums and incessant noodling on the guitar before jumping into the riff which pauses every so often before going into the verse where Cobain starts moaning the lyrics. The song, about a parasite, has a chorus of only four words: "Doll steak / Test meat." The song is somewhat similar to "Very Ape" except it has more of an edge. Cobain's voice earns most of the credit for providing the edge. As I said before, I initially liked "Milk It" better than "Very Ape," but that has since changed.
9. "Pennyroyal Tea"
The song starts with acoustic guitar and Cobain clearing his voice and acoustic guitar. The lyrics on the famous chorus of "I'm anemic royalty" sound as if they are being drowned out by the guitar, as Albini dubbed it low. It is a good song even though there is very little to write about it. I'm getting tired…
10. "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter"
This song is a direct jab at Geffen Records, who wanted Nirvana's music to be more radio friendly. The song starts with high feedback and Cobain talking while a dominant bass riff takes over. The guitar spastically plays before going into a riff. The final line offers one plea: "Speak, speak the truth." The song then goes into a guitar and drums breakdown where the song essentially starts over again with another breakdown of pure noise and feedback.
The only coherent words in the song are the spoken "Moderate rock" at the beginning of the song and "Hey." No lyrics are listed in the album insert. This song does have an insane riff which is the most attractive part of it. It's only 1:35 long, but it packs quite the punch.
12. "All Apologies"
I'm just going to say it now: this version SUCKS. Horribly. The MTV Unplugged in New York version absolutely owns this. The guitar sounds out of the tune, the vocals are WAY too low, and the bass is mixed too high. Horrible engineering on a great song. I can see why the Unplugged version is more famous. Still, "All Apologies" is a great closer for the album, especially for the mantra "All in all is all we are" to end it. My favorite part of the song is one of the first lines: "What else can I say / Everyone is gay." It's a good closer and a good song, but this version just plain SUCKS. Sorry Kurt and Steve.
Final rating: 4/5
Final Analysis: Nirvana should definitely have worked with someone else besides Steve Albini on this. This could have been a masterpiece, but instead the listener spends the whole time straining for the vocals which are buried under guitar and bass. I still think Albini is somewhat of a genius (seriously, listen to some of his Big Black stuff), but he and Nirvana were not meant to be together. The album is still good, but Bitch Vig did a much better job on Nevermind, which would get the nod in a head to head matchup.