Grunge was the last great movement in music where bands with talent got signed and musicians got rich. This is before Metallica sued Napster, before the recording industry tried to prosecute teenagers for downloading music, before music had to be mastered to be played from a cell phone, before music had to be cute to be popular (“Macarena,” anyone?).
Nirvana were the punk-kid, little brothers of the music scene before 1993. Their first album, Bleach, was creative, raw and influenced by punk and metal. It had no measurable popularity when it was released. In 1991, Nirvana single-handedly and unexpectedly broke open the independent rock genre with the massive success of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” While Michael Jackson’s Thriller broke the ‘80s from its disco doldrums into a series of one-hit wonders, Nevermind redefined rock music as we knew it, taking it away from glam, spotlight and choreography, from butt-rock and electronic experimentation (at least for a few years).
But Nirvana are unlikely heroes and were unlike many of their Seattle counterparts. They didn’t climb the club ladder, pay their dues, and they certainly weren’t polished or radio-ready. They were hardly even groomed! Kurt Cobain’s anti-pop prowess made Nirvana this sort of paradoxical entity—a template for the indie rock genre of our time.
In Utero was Nirvana’s last album before the iconic Cobain caved into the pressures of the fast-moving world—the world of superstardom, obligation, red carpet, drinking, drugs, fatherhood, Courtney Love—and decided he couldn’t take growing up. A third album on a major label meant that Nirvana had some big shoes to fill: their own. All in all, In Utero was a commercial success: it debuted at number one on the Billboard charts and sold over 3.5 million records (compared to over 7 million for Nevermind. The singles “Heart-shaped Box” and “All Apologies” both would hit #1 on the US Modern Rock (“Alternative”) charts and #4 on the Mainstream Rock charts.
While some would say that it “alienated fans,” others may argue this album only alienated those who weren’t actually fans of Nirvana, what they stood for, who they were and what they were doing as artists. Even when they hit mainstream popularity, they did it on their own terms: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had completely incoherent lyrics that no one but a mental patient could sing along to.
In classic Nirvana form, In Utero starts off loud and crass. “Serve the Servants” has that not-quite-pop quality that Nirvana mastered. Nirvana managed to take the template of the pop song and turn it on its head, adding splashes of discord and dissonance. “Scentless Apprentice” still delivers with a drum beat that is memorialized by drummers everywhere. Copious amounts of screaming and crashing make up the chorus, while the verses are slightly melodic. “Milk It” employs a shaky, psychotic, low voice with wandering plinks from the guitar that seem completely disconnected from the song. Cobain sounds like he may be talking to a spider in a ward. The chorus blows up with cymbal crashes and distortion and random words screamed: “Test meat!/ Doll steak!” The guitar solo is as far away from ‘80s polish as you can get, riddled with errors. It is positively perfect in its sloppy beauty.
“Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” mixed a calm, metered pace with opening clean-channel guitar plucking into hard-hitting, distortion and open hi-hats. They flip back and forth, teasing us before delivering loud choruses. The bridge feels inspired by some pop song (is that a tambourine?) only to end with the clank of maybe a child’s xylophone. Even when they follow the formula, they never follow the formula entirely.
“Dumb” and “All Apologies” are the ballads on the track, integrating cello into the soundscapes, showing that Nirvana isn’t just blinded by aggression and rage—they can write elements of pretty songs as well. What Nirvana really does best, though, is to utilize the talents of its rhythm section (David Grohl on drums and Krist Novoselic on bass) as a backdrop for the messy chaos of Cobain. “Tourette’s” is that perfect blend of a solid rhythm section with sloppy guitars and screaming. “Very Ape” has an almost whimsical lead guitar riff bouncing over the top of the music while Grohl and Novoselic pound out hard-hitting, gorgeous music and Cobain rants about “Contradictionary flies” and being the “king of illiterature.” His anti-guitar solo is practically random picking at scabs on the neck of his guitar.
Nirvana wasn’t about the popularity of the vocalist or the lyrics. It was about the emotion and the (he)art of music. It wasn’t about amazing guitar chops or chord progressions, it was about doing what-the-fuck-ever. “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” is scraping and screeching and guitar-wailing, exemplifying the angsty, punk-rock, fuck-it-all attitude that became the norm for the generation (and Grohl’s kick-drum near-solo in the last minute of the song is mind-blowing).
In Utero laid the groundwork for anti-pop indie rockers for the next 20 years, but also, in my mind, set the stage for the hesitation a generation of musicians would have about getting popular and getting signed (thus the “independent” part of “indie rock”). We all watched Cobain careen into a self-destructive spiral, yet we could all almost understand and empathize with him. He was our anti-hero and this was the last great piece of art he would do.
The icing on the cake is three years later when Walmart pressured Geffen records to clean up “Rape Me,” a musically benevolent ballad. This song is delivered as an ironic statement about a rapist getting his due in prison. This sort of corporate stand-off set the stage for what would end up happening to the generation at large: we had something great and artistic, but Money doesn’t care about art or message. Money wants to make it safe. Geffen eventually caved and changed the song to appease the Christian Right, renaming it “Waste Me” so that kids in Missouri would never get the underlying artistry that was intended.
Unlike many of us in the generation, this album has aged very well (it never got fat or had kids). Steve Albini’s production (Albini is another antihero,who was well known for critiquing the music industry) was brilliant and the instrumentation is clear and concise. The blasts of guitar feedback and claustrophobic plucking are still a joy to listen to, and the purposeful, wailing, flat vocals are absolutely delightful. Grohl’s drumming makes me wish he never moved to the microphone in the Foo Fighters. The song order was very well constructed, and the production is so excellent that it feels like I can still hear everything. These songs can be momentous, brilliant, and fun, even, all whilst making you want to punch a kitten and thrash about in a mosh pit again (helping you your fellow man up if they fall down, of course).