Nirvana never wanted to be the biggest band in the world; things just sort of worked out that way. But in 1993, they thought they had found a way to remedy that: release In Utero.
As you’re probably aware, despite their best efforts, they didn’t really succeed at sabotaging their careers (In Utero debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts and has been certified platinum five times over), though you’ve certainly got to give them credit for trying. Because 20 years after it hit stores — a deluxe anniversary reissue is set to be released on September 24 — the album stands as a contrarian landmark, the kind of thing only a band like Nirvana would ever dream of making in the first place.
From Kurt Cobain’s corrosive yowls on “Milk It” and “Tourette’s” to the decidedly non-Nevermind sensibilities of “All Apologies” and “Dumb,” it’s an album that sought to alienate both sides of their fanbases — the mainstream and the underground — and confound everyone in between. They hired notoriously surly sonic naturalist Steve Albini to produce it, then balked when folks at their label suggested they sand down some of his rough edges.
Cobain put a collage of fetuses and stray body parts on the back cover, and thought of calling the album I Hate Myself And Want To Die. The disc itself features a photo of a man in lingerie. There’s a song on it called “Rape Me.” And the video for first single “Heart-Shaped Box” features a young girl parading around in Ku Klux Klan robes.
To call In Utero challenging would be an understatement. In many ways, it seemed like Cobain never even wanted to make the album, perhaps because he knew he couldn’t win. The punks and purists had largely abandoned him at this time, and the shirtless masses that packed into arenas to see his band seemed to miss the point entirely.
So he decided to embrace his situation: if the scene kids were already accusing him of selling out, well, then he was going to hire Albini — their most vaunted producer — to helm his record. And if the jocks were still going to like his band, well, he was going to make them feel real uncomfortable when they were buying his album.
Ultimately, he relented slightly, allowing producer Scott Litt to re-work a pair of songs, and changing the title of “Rape Me” to placate nervous retailers. But other than that, Cobain’s will won out, and 20 years later, In Utero remains one of the most uncompromising major-label rock albums in history, a testament to his will and determination and desire to blow it all up and disappear.
He explores his fascination with Beatles-esque harmonies, plays with concepts of gender and dominance, and rails against all the trappings of success. It’s a thrilling, vivid listen, one that reveals a portrait of an artist being pulled in several directions at once, unsure and unwilling of which way to go, angry and tormented yet, ultimately, unafraid.
It’s impossible to think of an album like this being made today, and not just because there are no bands of Nirvana’s caliber currently working. The shareholders would riot. The boardrooms would be set ablaze. There’s too much to lose and not enough to go around. The reasons are endless …which is why we should appreciate In Utero even more.
At the height of their fame, with the world watching and waiting, Nirvana decided to do things their way, and they never wavered. Call that commendable, or perhaps call it crazy, just don’t call it compromised. Because this band never did that.