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Nirvana’s ‘In Utero’ turns 30

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana during the taping of MTV Unplugged at Sony Studios in New York City on Nov. 18, 1993.(Frank Micelotta/WISH File Photo)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — “Teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old…”

And so goes the opening line of “Serve The Servants,” the first track from Nirvana’s “In Utero,” an entire album that shot across the bows at everything in their world.

Released on Sept. 21, 1993, the “In Utero” album was the band’s last effort before the death of singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain in April 1994. Hot on the heels of the almost-surreal success of 1991’s “Nevermind” album, “In Utero” was distinctly impenetrable and purposefully anti-commercial by comparison and by design. Given that it’s original title was “I Hate Myself And I Want To Die,” it isn’t difficult to see which way they wanted this to go.

The cultural impact of “Nevermind” cannot be underestimated. Expecting modest sales and returns from their record label, the album instead blew apart the cultural zeitgeist, forcing grunge into the public eye and immortalizing the mores of Gen X. The album was best exemplified by its lead single “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” With mysterious and electric lyrics, that riff that gets inside people’s heads. An accompanying video captured the spirit of the times for certain sections of society as not much else that had come before it.

Thirty million Nirvana fans couldn’t be wrong. “Nevermind” is certified “diamond” three times over. It was made part of the National Recording Registry. Music historians said the album was the hammer blow for the preening and strutting hair metal era — although the growth of Bay Area thrash metal from the early 1980s bears its weight of responsibility, too. Its place in history is assured.

Yet … and yet … Nirvana, particularly Cobain, still weren’t happy. They deemed the production on “Nevermind” as “too polished.” Talking to Rolling Stone magazine in early 1992, Cobain said the follow-up album would more readily explore the extreme sides of their sound. He said that “it won’t be as one-dimensional.”

“Nevermind’s” producer Butch Vig, who later had a second career as the drummer in Garbage, was happy to give up the reins and accepted the band would have to work with a different producer to find what they were sought.

Nirvana settled on Steve Albini as the producer for what became “In Utero.” Regarded as uncompromising, minimalist and abrasive, Albini has always refused to take royalties from the records he produces, deeming it immoral and opting instead for one flat payment. Recruiting Albini defied the logic and expectations of Geffen Records, Nirvana’s record label. Geffen Records clearly wanted a straight-down-the-middle follow-up to “Nevermind,” and who could blame them? However, Cobain was telling music journalists including Michael Azerrad that “we sold out last year” and “I’m just putting out a record I would like to listen to at home.”

With no lack of foreshadowing, Cobain told Azerrad: “They want another ‘”‘Nevermind’ … but I would rather die than do that.”

Ever the contrarian, Albini first denied working with Nirvana before calling them “R.E.M. with a fuzzbox.”

The initial recording sessions seemed positive. Nirvana requested that its management not interfere, and refused to send tapes charting the album’s progress. Cobain said the recording process was the easiest the band had been a part of. He reportedly recorded all of the album’s vocal track in just six hours. Albini remarked that Cobain had stayed clean and sober in the studio, despite public battles with substance abuse in the years prior.

However positive the recording environment may have been, the Albini mix received short shrift from label and management. Cobain said that “the grown-ups don’t like it,” and the pressure to master the sessions or completely re-record them was felt by the band.

Talking to Circus magazine after the album’s release, Cobain said: “The first time I played it at home, I knew there was something wrong. The whole first week I wasn’t really interested in listening to it at all, and that usually doesn’t happen. I got no emotion from it, I was just numb.”

The group asked Albini to remix the album. He declined. Producers Bob Ludwig and Scott Litt were drafted in to touch up the album. Litt specifically worked on songs the label intended to be singles.

Even with the sheen of remastering, “In Utero” is Nirvana’s most visceral and raw album, a great deal more than “Nevermind” and even rougher around the edges than 1989’s debut “Bleach.”

The opening “Serve The Servants” sets the tone with its opening discordant, mangled crash of guitar and lyrics that are dour, sarcastic and self-referential. As well as that opening line, references to “self-appointed judges” who “judge more than they have sold” and the “legendary divorce” that is “such a bore” seem to take various, scattered swipes at both personal and professional aspects of Cobain’s life.

“Scentless Apprentice” upped the ante further: squalling guitar, screamed, cryptic lyrics, and possibly one of the heaviest riffs Nirvana actually put together. The song was inspired by “Perfume,” the novel by Patrick Suskind. It charted a man born in 18th century France who had a keen sense of smell that helped him become a master perfume maker but wihtout a scent of his own. As the novel develops, the antagonist commits murder to craft and refine his bottled scents. The guitar was written by Dave Grohl, and was the only song on the album to grant songwriting credits to all three band members.

“Heart-Shaped Box,” the biggest single taken from the album, combined all of the elements of what made Nirvana so popular. There was the oft-imitated, quiet-loud-quiet dynamic that they themselves had plucked from those that came before them, Cobain’s dream-like lyrics, and a video that was literally taken from a dream he’d once had.

The rest of “In Utero” cannoned along and bounced off the walls relentlessly.

“Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle” is a tale of the desperation for vengeance and recognition, likely containing Cobain’s best solo on the album.

Songs like “Very Ape” and “Tourette’s” are short, sweet, clattering and dismissive. The former was sampled a year later by The Prodigy for “Voodoo People.”

While the sinister “Milk It” and the screeching, scratchy, very on-the-nose “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” have the crunch and fuzz most readily associated as the common musical theme of the album.

Yet it wasn’t all reckless noise. Indeed, “In Utero” displayed some of Cobain’s and Nirvana’s most sensitive lyrical and musical moments.

“Pennyroyal Tea” found Cobain opining for “a Leonard Cohen afterworld so I can sigh eternally” while laying bare health problems that had followed him for most of his life.

“Dumb” found him reflecting if “I’m dumb, or maybe I’m just happy,” a clarion call for millions of black-clad Gen X fans.

Certainly last but not least, the beautiful, at times heart-rending “All Apologies.” The album’s official final track runs the emotional gamut of contentedness, to regret, to anger, and to love. The contrast afforded by philosophic musings such as “all in all is all we are” nestled alongside bitterness toward his “nest of salt” was indicative of Cobain’s state of mind and personal life at the time.

At the time, the general critical consensus of “In Utero” was positive. Critics, the label and the band accepted that reaching the dizzying heights of “Nevermind” again was nigh-on impossible. Among other outlets heaping praise upon the record, Rolling Stone made it their No. 1 album of 1993 and later named it the 435th best album of all-time in 2013.

Time has been kind to “In Utero”. Critical reappraisal in the intervening decades has seen it marked as a “rough diamond” in life’s great, big filing cabinet. As Nirvana biographer Charles R. Cross wrote 10 years after the album’s release: “If it is possible for an album that sold four million copies to be overlooked, or underappreciated, then “In Utero” is that lost pearl.”

Seven months after “In Utero” was released, Cobain was dead and a generation mourned. In musical terms, he and Nirvana went out in their own way, signing off with a record that, while laboring under some compromises, still managed to effectively tell the story the way they wanted to.