Nirvana’s ‘In Utero’ turns 25

by Paige Ardill

Nirvana’s ‘In Utero’ turns 25

In Utero

DGC · September 1993

On September 21st, 1993, In Utero, Nirvana’s third and final studio album rocked the world and changed the name of grunge forever. Unapologetic in its creation, both the process and the product rebelled against the corporate environment the band had fallen privy to after their initial commercial success. Despite immense in-house disapproval, In Utero went on to become certified five times platinum, selling over 15 million copies worldwide.

Having found monumental success from their second studio release, all eyes were on the west coast grunge band to deliver another chart topping album to succeed Nevermind. Originally estimated to sell only 50,000 copies, Nevermind clocked in at a whopping 30 million copies sold worldwide. Even more, it popularized the Seattle grunge movement and the genre of alternative rock. Still, this wasn’t enough. Unsatisfied with the refined and polished studio sound of their previous album, Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl set out to diverge from what they had created in search of something more visceral. To do this, they recruited the help of Steve Albini, producer of two of Cobain’s favorite songs, ‘Surfer Rosa’ by The Pixies and ‘Pod’ by The Breeders. Albini later told Michael Azerrad that, originally, he had only accepted the offer because he felt sorry for them, that they were a small fry band that sound like REM with a fuzzbox and were unremarkable to the Seattle sound. Regardless, Albini’s guiding hand lead Nirvana to a space where they could produce the sound they craved to release: Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls, Minnesota.

Over a two week period in February of 1993 in privacy of the northern woods, the band began to create. In order to keep from label interference, an important factor in moving towards their new sound, Albini suggested band members pay for the sessions out of pocket, himself only taking a $100,000 flat fee as he considered royalties to be immoral and an insult to the artist. Without the peering eye of their label The David Geffen Company, owned by Universal Music Group, the trio and Albini were left in a space of pure creative bliss. Utilizing Albini’s technique of capturing the natural ambiance of a room, the band began recording all of the songs together. The only exceptions were ones with faster compositions–such as ‘Very Ape’ and ‘Tourettes’–which were recorded in the kitchen to hone its natural reverb alongside 30 separate microphones. Noting himself as more of an engineer than a producer on this project, Albini supported Cobain’s vision; despite mistakes, they did not discard any takes and included virtually everything captured. When a song mix wasn’t producing desired results, they took the rest of the day off to watch nature videos, set things on fire, and make prank calls. It was peaceful, the only notable tension occurring when Courtney Love visited, reportedly being critical and confrontational. Regardless, the engineering continued as the songs began to take form.

After the albums initial completion, there was major backlash from the label with rumors that they wouldn’t release the album in its original state as it wasn’t commercially viable. However, after a strong disposition not to change, and only a few slight tweaks made on the their two singles by REM producer Scott Lott, DGC sent promo copies of ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ to American college radio stations in early September of 1993, avoiding the Top 40 market. Upon its release in late September, despite the overarching skepticism, In Utero entered number one on the Billboard 200 and received critical acclaim from its departure from Nevermind. Time’s Christopher John Farley remarked, “Despite the fears of some alternative-music fans, Nirvana hasn’t gone mainstream, though this potent new album may once again force the mainstream to go Nirvana”.

Cobain later told Darcey Steinke from Spin Magazine in 1993 that, “in contrast to Bleach and Nevermind, the lyrics were ‘more focused, they’re almost built on themes’”. These themes are inclusive of medical imagery, possibly in regards to Cobain’s outlook on newfound fame, as well as references to abstract literature Cobain encountered in high school (in regards to ‘Scentless Apprentice’). The cover, a mirage of childlike imagery, depicted a collage Cobain had made himself–an ode to his newborn daughter Frances Bean, perhaps. Regarding sound quality, In Utero showcases sounds in both extremes. Ranging from raw aggression to candy pop, Critics began proposing that Nevermind could be considered one dimensional, in comparison.

After a Grammy nomination and a cut-short European tour, however, in early 1994 Cobain overdosed and went home to rehab. After disappearing out of the public eye, on April 8th, 1994 Kurt Cobain was found dead in his Seattle home having allegedly committing suicide. Three days after Cobain’s body was discovered, In Utero moved back up the Billboard charts, from number 72 to number 27: a sick joke or maybe just a cosmic ode to another genius overcome by his demons entering the 27 Club.

To this day, In Utero has stood the test of time being noted in numerous publications as one of the best albums of all time. In contrast to their song ‘All Apologies’, the album remains an unapologetic ode to pure artistry and strong willed creation despite the outstanding noise and chaos of a corporate industry. Changing the face of grunge, Nirvana’s most controversial yet arguably best work will sit solemnly and proud next to their name in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, forever.

Listen to In Utero here: