20th Anniversary Review: Nirvana – ‘In Utero’


Nirvana’s third and final studio album ‘In Utero’ turns 20 today, but is it really a classic? David J. Lownds delivers his verdict.

It’s almost taken for granted by many that the final studio album by grunge behemoth Nirvana,In Utero‘, is a classic. It has to be, right? Die-hard fans think that to say otherwise would be to speak blasphemy, to do the unthinkable, to suggest that Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and the not-so-frequently deified Krist Novoselic are actually capable of creating imperfect music. To others, however, Nirvana is the most overrated rock band of all time.  Is either of those groups right in their judgement? Also, one might ask, “Is it better than their second effort ‘Nevermind?‘”.

Firstly, to get the last question out of the way, ‘In Utero‘ is, for various reasons, a leap forward over its predecessor – not an especially huge leap, but a leap nonetheless.  ‘Nevermind‘’s clean and polished production is replaced by Steve Albini’s rough-around-the-edges style, which suits their sound better and emphasises even more the quiet/loud contrast which is a distinct characteristic of grunge; this is brought out most fully in songs like ‘Frances Farmer…‘ and ‘All Apologies‘. Furthermore, there is a slight improvement in the lyrics department: songs are superior and generally more cohesive; there are fewer tracks in which various images with no common theme are bundled together like the way in which songs from Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Humbug‘ and ‘Suck It and See‘ are arranged.

However, there are still some apparently nonsensical or bizarre lyrics, as well as the utterly incomprehensible ‘Tourette’s‘, all of which undermine the quality of ‘In Utero‘’s content. Furthermore, although there are at least several outstanding lines, none of the album is as good as “Just because you’re paranoid / Don’t mean they’re not after you” from ‘Nevermind‘’s ‘Territorial Pissings‘. Nor, for that matter, does any of the album rival the verbal dexterity of Rakim (see ‘Follow The Leader‘) or the emotive, disturbing power of songs like ‘John Brown‘ by Bob Dylan, ‘Stan‘ by Eminem and others.  If only Cobain’s words were as hard-hitting as Grohl’s drumming! Moreover, none of his performances quite match up to the chilling scream at the end of his band’s take on Leadbelly’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night‘, and another failing of the album is its unwillingness to experiment with a wide variety of styles. Therefore, like Nirvana as a band, ‘In Utero‘ is quite overrated, but is still a tour-de-force of raw power.

David J. Lownds
David J. Lownds is an aspiring author and philosopher who also writes for Muso’s Guide, Far Out Magazine and his own blog (davidjlownds.wordpress.com). He listens to almost every style of music from jazz to grunge to underground hip-hop, and is learning to play bass and acoustic guitar. CURRENTLY LISTENING TO: Libertines, Green Day, John Frusciante, Arctic Monkeys SPECIALIST SUBJECT: The life and work of Dave Grohl, and Anthony Kiedis.

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