20 Years Ago Today: Nirvana’s ‘In Utero’

In_Utero_(Nirvana)_album_coverOn September 13th, 1993 American grunge band Nirvana released their 3rd and final album, “In Utero”. To mark this anniversary we present you a look back at the album.

In Utero

Released: September 13, 1993
Recorded: February 13–26, 1993 at Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls, Minnesota
Genre: Grunge
Length: 48:49
Label: DGC
Producer: Steve Albini

Singles from In Utero

Heart Shaped Box
All Apologies“/”Rape Me

About In Utero

In Utero is the third and final studio album by the American grunge band Nirvana, released on September 13, 1993, on DGC Records. Nirvana intended the record to diverge significantly from the polished production of its previous album, Nevermind (1991). To capture a more abrasive and natural sound, the group hired producer Steve Albini to record In Utero during a two-week period in February 1993 at Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. The music was recorded quickly with few studio embellishments, and the song lyrics and album packaging incorporated medical imagery that conveyed frontman Kurt Cobain’s outlook on his publicized personal life and his band’s newfound fame. Soon after recording was completed, rumors circulated in the press that DGC might not release the album in its original state, as the record label felt that the result was not commercially viable. Although Nirvana publicly denied the statements, the group was not fully satisfied with the sound Albini had captured. Albini declined to alter the album further, and ultimately the band hired Scott Litt to make minor changes to the album’s sound and remix the singles “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies”.

Upon release, In Utero entered the Billboard 200 chart at number one and received critical acclaim as a drastic departure from Nevermind. The record has been certified five times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America, and has sold 3.58 million copies in the United States according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Nirvana broke into the musical mainstream with its major label debut, Nevermind, in 1991. Despite modest sales estimates—the band’s record company, DGC Records, forecast that 50,000 copies would be sold—Nevermind became a huge commercial success, selling millions of copies and popularizing the Seattle grunge movement and alternative rock in general. However, all three members of Nirvana—singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl—later expressed dissatisfaction with the sound of the album, citing its production as too polished. Early in 1992, Cobain told Rolling Stone that he was sure that the band’s next album would showcase “both of the extremes” of its sound, saying “it’ll be more raw with some songs and more candy pop on some of the others. It won’t be as one-dimensional [as Nevermind]”. Cobain wanted to start work on the album in the summer of 1992. However, the band was unable to since Cobain and his bandmates lived in different cities, and the singer and his wife Courtney Love were expecting the birth of their daughter Frances Bean. DGC had hoped to have a new album by the band ready for a late 1992 holiday season release; since work on it proceeded slowly, the label released the compilation album Incesticide in December 1992.

In a Melody Maker interview published in July 1992, Cobain told the English journalist Everett True he was interested in recording with Jack Endino (who had produced the group’s 1989 debut album Bleach) and Steve Albini (former frontman of the noise rock band Big Black and producer for various indie releases). Cobain said he would then choose the best material from the sessions for inclusion on the group’s next album. In October 1992, Nirvana recorded several songs (mainly as instrumentals) during a demo session with Endino in Seattle; many of these songs would later be re-recorded for In Utero. Endino recalled that the band did not ask him to produce its next record, but noted that the band members constantly debated working with Albini. The group recorded another set of demos while on tour in Brazil in January 1993. One of the recordings from this session, the long improvisational track “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip”, was included as a hidden track on non-US copies of In Utero.

Nirvana ultimately chose Albini to record its third album. Albini had a reputation as a principled and opinionated individual in the American independent music scene. While there was speculation that the band chose Albini to record the album due to his underground credentials, Cobain told Request magazine in 1993, “For the most part I wanted to work with him because he happened to produce two of my favorite records, which were Surfer Rosa [by the Pixies] and Pod [by The Breeders].” Inspired by those albums, Cobain wanted to utilize Albini’s technique of capturing the natural ambiance of a room via the usage and placement of several microphones, something previous Nirvana producers had been averse to trying. Months before the trio had even approached Albini about the recording, rumors circulated that he was slated to record the album. Albini sent a disclaimer to the British music press denying involvement, only to get a call from Nirvana’s management a few days later about the project. Although he considered the group to be “R.E.M. with a fuzzbox” and “an unremarkable version of the Seattle sound”, Albini told Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad he accepted because he felt sorry for the band members, whom he perceived to be “the same sort of people as all the small-fry bands I deal with”, at the mercy of their record company. Before the start of recording sessions, the band sent Albini a tape of the demos it had made in Brazil. In return, Albini sent Cobain a copy of the PJ Harvey album Rid of Me to give him an idea of what the studio where they would record at sounded like.

What the Critics Said

Nirvana probably hired Steve Albini to produce In Utero with the hopes of creating their own Surfer Rosa, or at least shoring up their indie cred after becoming a pop phenomenon with a glossy punk record. In Utero, of course, turned out to be their last record, and it’s hard not to hear it as Kurt Cobain’s suicide note, since Albini’s stark, uncompromising sound provides the perfect setting for Cobain’s bleak, even nihilistic, lyrics. Even if the album wasn’t a literal suicide note, it was certainly a conscious attempt to shed their audience — an attempt that worked, by the way, since the record had lost its momentum when Cobain died in the spring of 1994. Even though the band tempered some of Albini’s extreme tactics in a remix, the record remains a deliberately alienating experience, front-loaded with many of its strongest songs, then descending into a series of brief, dissonant squalls before concluding with “All Apologies,” which only gets sadder with each passing year. Throughout it all, Cobain’s songwriting is typically haunting, and its best moments rank among his finest work, but the over-amped dynamicism of the recording seems like a way to camouflage his dispiritedness — as does the fact that he consigned such great songs as “Verse Chorus Verse” and “I Hate Myself and Want to Die” to compilations, when they would have fit, even illuminated the themes of In Utero. Even without those songs, In Utero remains a shattering listen, whether it’s viewed as Cobain’s farewell letter or self-styled audience alienation. Few other records are as willfully difficult as this.

~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine

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