Many commentators will tell you that In Utero is Nirvana’s crowning achievement, showcasing Kurt Cobain’s song writing and the power of the band with a raw sound more reflective of the band’s punk roots and indie ethos than its more successful predecessor. While it’s true that Kurt, Krist and Dave claimed to prefer their final studio album and its production has aged better than much of their 1991 breakthrough, the fact is that Nevermind has the better songs.
Let’s be clear, In Utero is a sensational album. It’s a five-star classic, a must-have of its genre and the home of several astonishing songs. It demands to be played and enjoyed over and over again. But Nevermind was a creative peak for Nirvana. It stemmed from the time that they got serious as artists, settled on their seminal line-up and focused their ambitions beyond being grunge also-rans.
Many of the songs on their 1989 debut album, Bleach had barely been more than riffs with a few lyrics barked over the top; to great effect in some cases, like on Negative Creep and School, less so on others (Scoff, Swap Meet, Mr Moustache). With hindsight, only About a Girl and the non-album single Sliver hinted at the quantum leap forward in crafting songs that the band’s second album would represent.
Half of the material for Nevermind had been written and demoed in a session with their producer Butch Vig more than a year before the album was recorded. At this time all three members of the band were dirt-poor and totally committed to the success of the album. They played dozens of live shows in the intervening months and rehearsed endlessly, producing further songs of the highest quality, including the trailblazing single Smells Like Teen Spirit and its follow up, Come As You Are. When they went to Los Angeles in May 1991 to record their second album the quality of the original material they had accumulated was spectacular.
A record that opens with a track as celebrated as Teen Spirit could be forgiven for dropping off steeply in quality by track two, but Nevermind doesn’t. In Bloom, Breed and Stay Away are like companion pieces to the opener, featuring the same loud/quiet dynamics, but each with its own exhilarating and memorable hook. Lithium, with its lip-curling riff and the uplifting ‘yeah yeahs’ of the chorus, had been expected to be the first single from the album until Teen Spirit came along and set the bar that little bit higher.
Come As You Are, with its watery chorus effects, offers a downbeat variation on the theme and the acoustic tracks, Polly and Something In The Way are as powerful and memorable as anything else on the album. The ludicrously overdriven Territorial Pissings is like a throwback to Bleach, but played with more conviction and at a Minor Threat tempo. Hundreds of bands have had long careers without producing anything as good as On A Plain, but on Nevermind it’s regarded as a minor album track. Even the slice of Scratch Acid-style noise of the hidden track, Endless, Nameless is exhilarating, evoking the chaos of the band’s live show.
It’s an awesome selection of songs, but it’s so much more than that. As a whole the album is varied enough to always be interesting, but coherent enough to maintain the mood of lazy, youthful aggression and outsider defiance throughout. It’s a showcase for the ferocious noise that the band could make, particularly for Dave Grohl’s punishing drumming and Kurt Cobain’s smashed-glass vocals. This is how Krist Novoselic once described Nevermind; ‘It’s pop. It’s just that the guitars are heavy’. True, and maybe it isn’t ground breaking musically, but it smashed down the barrier between underground music and the mainstream and it sounds great.
In Utero sounds great too. But while Nirvana were a focused, committed unit on Nevermind, by the time they recorded their follow up everything had changed. They were no longer dirt-poor and they didn’t need to spend all their time together rehearsing anymore. They had become hugely successful, which led to increased pressure from their management and record label and concerns that their former peers saw them as having sold out. Kurt was hailed as the spokesman for his generation; a title he bore with immense discomfort and which led him to become much more introspective in his lyric writing.
There had been arguments over royalties, with Kurt demanding a backdated higher share than his band mates. Courtney was now on the scene and Kurt’s heroin addiction had escalated alarmingly. On top of all this upheaval was the idea from within the band that they had lost credibility; that their new found popularity excluded them from the underground where they felt they belonged. Kurt was the keenest of the trio to restore their punk reputation, and he was happy to alienate a large proportion of the band’s newer fans in the process, but he was less keen to relinquish his reputation as a brilliant songwriter and the leader of the world’s foremost ‘alternative rock’ band. While Nevermind is the sound of a united Nirvana trying to reach the ears of a disaffected generation, In Utero is a conflicted Nirvana pushing in several directions at once. It’s as confused as Nevermind is coherent.
There are some amazing tunes on the album though. The opening track, Serve The Servants is joyous and it even starts with a joke; the opening atonal chord which suggests that the album will be the near-unlistenable noise fest that many had anticipated, before morphing into a straightforward, angst-filled, grunge-pop song. Heart-Shaped Box may be the best song Nirvana ever recorded, combining the raw openness of Something In The Way with killer guitar riffs and reprising the loud/quiet trademark from Nevermind. Pennyroyal Tea is moving and exciting with some fine, self-deprecating lyrics (‘I’m anaemic royalty’). All Apologies is beautiful; like a more ambitious and confident Polly.
The songs are never less than interesting but too often they don’t feel fully-formed. Milk It, Tourette’s, Frances Farmer…, Radio Friendly Unit Shifter, Scentless Apprentice all seem like the products of a self-conscious reversion to thrown-together punk song writing, which is fine, and they’re exciting to listen to, but they don’t stand up well to the songs on Nevermind, or to the fully-formed highlights on In Utero. Rape Me is another example. This song is highly-regarded by many Nirvana fans because it adheres to the loud/quiet template and it displays Kurt’s hypersensitivity (and also, if you’re feeling cynical, it sounds a little like Teen Spirit but has retained more kudos by remaining less well-known). In the case of Rape Me, not only does the final song feel undercooked, with too few lyrics and ideas, but isn’t a millionaire rock star using rape as an analogy for his own privileged situation in slightly bad taste? We know the situation eventually drove him over the edge, but there’s an element of self-indulgence about it and maybe an element of trying too hard to shock the mainstream portion of their audience.
So In Utero has its faults, but it’s always worth another listen. It’s more diverse sounding than Nevermind, in terms of style, accessibility and quality, and it was an excellent way to follow the band’s breakthrough (Nevermind 2 would have been unnecessary and a mistake). It does what an album is supposed to do; show where the band is at a particular moment in time. As a result it’s more emotional, raw, abrasive and cynical that its predecessor, but in terms of the songs, it’s only their second best album.