Nirvana’s final album still rocks 30 years later
Nirvana’s third and final studio album, In Utero, turned 30 years old this past week. Coming from the biggest fan you’ll ever meet, I would put this album in my top 10 favorites—it is still on my daily rotation. This fantastic record contains genre blends of grunge, hardcore punk, noise-rock, and mellow ballads. With themes full of emotion, rage, and regret; this album is a classic in my eyes.
After Nirvana released the best grunge album of all time, and arguably the top album of the 1990s, Nevermind, singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl wanted to step away from the polished sound of this record’s production. The band's dislike of Nevermind was due to Cobain feeling overwhelmed by the overnight success and how the poppy production attracted a larger fanbase that wouldn’t have listened to them otherwise. Nevermind's commercial success explains why In Utero sounds rough and unpolished, but this abrasive record has smoothed out like a shard of glass on the oceanside in the 30 years since its release on September 21, 1993.
The record opens with “Serve The Servants,” where Cobain delivers the iconic opening line—“teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old.” The album then goes into the most brutal hardcore song the band had ever produced, “Scentless Apprentice,” which features Cobain screaming the chorus “go away!” so loud that the microphone quality becomes intensely distorted. Supposedly, Cobain is sending this message to all the fans he didn’t want to attract. While Cobain has gone on record to say that his lyrics are meaningless and listeners shouldn’t look too deeply into them, I’m convinced that there is a minority of lyrics that genuinely mean something, even if it is just describing the complex emotions Cobain was going through at the time of recording In Utero.
The lead single, “Heart-Shaped Box,” comes next in the tracklist, featuring its easily recognizable opening riff. The track “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle” has several shots of amp feedback, which were kept to make the sound as raw as possible. The track after that, “Dumb,” is my personal favorite and feels more airy and open, contradicting the claustrophobia of the prior tracks. This mellow ballad, the second song by Nirvana that includes the cello—the first being “Something In The Way”—is a fan favorite quoted in many superfan tattoos when Cobain says, “I’m not like them, but I can pretend.” Another track, “Pennyroyal Tea,” is another fan favorite after it was performed at their MTV Unplugged show. Still, it features a serene, almost queasy tone that transitions to harshness, like it was Cobain’s way of symbolizing his stomach pains. He even outright says the medicines he’d been taking in the third verse.
In Utero closes with “All Apologies,” featuring another iconic opening riff. “All in all is all we are” is the last line Cobain repeats until it fades out, and the album closes. This is the last message Cobain said to the world on an album before joining the 27-club—an urban legend about an unusually high number of musicians who’ve died at 27—in April 1994, seven months after the album’s release.
In Utero is a superb record that everyone should listen to at least once. While I don’t think the album is a perfect 10/10 like Nevermind, the production sounding as coarse as sandpaper is the main reason why I find myself returning to it more than any other rock record. In Utero is the best unintentional musical send-off any Nirvana fan could have wanted.