Revisiting “In Utero”, Nirvana’s Last Testament

The album was released officially worldwide on September 21st, 1993

Revisiting “In Utero”, Nirvana’s Last Testament

On September 21st, 1993, Nirvana officially release “In Utero”, their 3rd and final studio album, although the record had some trial released earlier in September, it wasn’t until 21st that meet the official one worldwide. “In Utero” it’s the most corrosive of all Nirvana albums and light years away from it’s predecessor the successful 1991 “Nevermind” that brought fame to the Seattle band and put them on the lead of the Grunge movement in the early 90’s. The main difference between “In Utero” and “Nevermind” is the rawness of it, while “Nevermind” is much more polished and a radio friendly Rock album, “In Utero” it’s Alternative Rock in it’s purest form and Nirvana’s real essence. However, the band struggled to make the album being released with the original sound they intend it to have.



Origin And Songs That Didn’t Made It

A lot of the songs in “In Utero” goes back to 1990/1991 such as “Pennyroyal Tea”, “Dumb”, “Rape Me” or “All Apologies” but they only meet it’s finished form during the recording sessions in 1993, additionally, new songs such as “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Serve The Servants” made it to the album, some were left over and used as B-Sides or released in compilations, among it “Vs Chorus Vs” which was previously known as “Sappy” recorded as a demo in 1990 along with some songs from “Nevermind”, and re-recorded during the “In Utero” sessions with some musical structure and lyrical differences. This was the first album where Dave Grohl is credited as co-composer, on the track “Scentless Apprentice”. Grohl had been trying to get his songs to be recorded by the band, however, Cobain was reluctant to do so, but in 1993 Grohl was finally allowed to participate in the composition process. Additionally they recorded his song “Marigold” the only Nirvana song where he does lead vocals, which served as a B-Side to “Heart-Shaped Box”. Some of the songs left over from the “In Utero” final tracklist were as good as the ones that made the album, for example the already mentioned “Marigold”, “Moist Vagina”, “I Hate Myself And I Want To Die” and “Vs Chorus Vs”, but at the same time some were considered too risque to be included due to the nature of it’s lyrics or titles. “I Hate Myself And I Want To Die” end up in the 1993 “The Beavis and Butt-Head Experience” compilation album and “Vs. Chorus Vs.” in the 1993 “No Alternative” AIDS benefit compilation album as a hidden track.



Sketching and Recording “In Utero”

After spending two years living on the shadow of “Nevermind” success, Nirvana decided it was time to do a record that they would feel completely happy about it, something that could reveal their essence as a band. The plans for “In Utero” started to take form in 1992, however, due to intensive touring, the band wasn’t able to initiate the recording sessions, and with a Geffen demand for a new album to come out,  they released the B-Sides and Rarities compilation “Incesticide” instead. While in Brazil playing some shows, they went into a recording studio together with Courtney Love’s band Hole and recorded some demos of new songs that would appear on “In Utero” including “Scentless Apprentice”, “Milk It”, “Heart-Shaped Box”, “Very Ape” and the long improvisation song “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through The Strip” that was featured on the European release of the album. They also recorded demos for songs that never made to the album as the already mentioned”Moist Vagina” and “I Hate Myself And I Want To Die”. The band sent the demos to their chosen producer, Steve Albini that by then already had produced some of the biggest alternative rock bands at the time such as Pixies, P.J Harvey, TAD, The Breeders, Urge Overkill, Fugazzi, Helmet and The Jesus Lizard among many others, this was the main reason Nirvana opted for Albini, before meeting, he sent Cobain a copy of the PJ Harvey album “Rid of Me” that he produced, to give him an idea of the acoustics at the studio where they would record. In February 1993, Nirvana traveled to Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, to record the album and stayed in a house located on the studio grounds during the recording sessions. Some parts of the house were actually used during the sessions, including the kitchen that served as recording place to Dave Grohl’s drums in some tracks due to it’s acoustics. The sessions went smooth and the band was satisfied with the work they done with Albini. In only 6 days they finished the recordings and in 5 days Albini mixed the album. The producer was not a fan of “Nevermind”, and he thought it wasn’t really  a flattering album to a band such as Nirvana who had a rawer potential and songs, that ultimately would be reflected on his “In Utero” mixing. After the recording sessions were completed, Nirvana sent unmastered tapes of the album to several individuals, including the president of DGC’s parent company Geffen Records Ed Rosenblatt and the group’s management company Gold Mountain, and the label wasn’t satisfied with it, claiming there wasn’t commercial potential to the songs and asked the band to start over. Feeling frustrated,  they decided to listen to the tapes again and eventually concluded that there was something quite not right in the mixing, particularly the vocals and bass were not audible enough. When Steve Albini refused to remix the album, the band called on producer Scott Litt who had produced R.E.M, he remixed some of the tracks such as “Heart-Shaped Box”, “All Apologies” and “Pennyroyal Tea” that was released with his mix on some versions of the album in 1994, but Geffen end up also recruiting audio mastering technician Bob Ludwig to make the record “sound acceptable”. After the mix of the album was finally concluded the label had another problem with it, the song “I Hate Myself And I Want To Die” which was the title Kurt Cobain initially choose for “In Utero”. In fear of getting sued do the nature of the title, the band dropped it and end up calling it “In Utero” inspired by a Courtney Love poem.



The Songs

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The album opens with the melodic and lyrically crafted “Serve The Servants”, the lyrics in “In Utero” were one of the biggest changes in comparison to “Nevermind”, instead of using pieces of poems glued together as Cobain used to do, he mostly wrote full poetic lyrics to go along with the songs, and it wasn’t about “Teen Spirit” anymore. The title was inspired by a William Burroughs novel, where he uses “serve” as slang to sell drugs, knowing the well publicized drug use of Cobain back then, we can quickly conclude why he choose that title, as the lyrics sound autobiographical, but Cobain insisted that weren’t in anyway reflective of his own life. Dave Grohl later would comment on it stating that there was indeed a strong autobiographical self-reflection point in the lyrics of “In Utero”. Cobain was an admirer of William Burroughs and previously in 1992 they collaborated together on “The Priest They Called Him” where Burroughs speaks one of his poems along to Cobain’s guitar.  Also a lot of the songs were inspired by literary works, aside of the Burroughs reference, “Serve The Servants” includes the line “Salem’s Lot” which perhaps can be traced back to Stephen King’s book, given the fact of the literary references present throughout the album, including  on the second track, “Scentless Apprentice” that was co-written by Dave Grohl and lyrically based on the book “The Perfume” by Patrick Suskind, one of Cobain’s favorite books. The song is one of the heaviest and more chaotic in the album. The 3rd song it’s “Heart-Shaped Box”, the darkest song in an album that by itself is already dark and moody. The song was the first hit from the album and the only one to feature a music video made for. The song uses a classic Nirvana formula of: quiet vs/loud chorus/quiet vs/, however is not even close to anything they did on “Bleach” or “Nevermind”. Despite the strong controversial lyrical content and the music video, it became one of the most played songs in the radio in 1993 with the music video airing on heavy rotation on MTV. “Rape Me” follows as 4th track of the album, and despite the controversial title,  became also one of radio play favorites during 1993-94. The short and heavy song features a catchy melody and easy lyrics although explicit in content. It became one of Nirvana’s most memorable songs and a staple on their “In Utero Tour” concerts. The song was first developed in 1991 and a live version of it is featured at the famous Live At The Seattle Paramount 1991 album, including a guitar solo that was later cut from the final version but keeps the same structure pretty much. The song according to Cobain was written after he visited a shelter for raped women, a long time outspoken feminist, Cobain stated that the lyrics are about a rapist that goes to jail and there he gets raped and experiences the same pain he caused to the women he raped. “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” it’s another song inspired by a literary work, this time the 1930’s Hollywood actress Frances Farmer biography. Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love both admired Farmer, and on their marriage, Love wore a dress previously owned by Frances Farmer. Their daughter’s name was also a tribute to the late actress. The song, as in “Serve The Servants”,  it’s well crafted lyrically and musically. It’s a raw Rock track that can be easily air-played without losing any of it’s integrity to the mainstream. The Side 1 closes with “Dumb”, a Beatlesque melody that was first recorded during a radio session in England back in 1991. The Beatles were Kurt Cobain’s favorite band, and his efforts to write a song that can be at the same time Pop and Punk were best shown in “Nevermind”, however, like the “Bleach” track “About A Girl”, there wasn’t no heavy rawness to “Dumb”, the only rawness of it is the beautiful melody and quiet music along with Cobain’s deep vocals and the Cello, an instrument the band already had experiment with in “Something In The Way”. Side 2 opens with the Grungy/Punk “Very Ape”, a good song, not a filler, but not the best on the album, the lyrics though are once again poignant as Cobains sings “I take pride as the king of literature” knowing he was being inspired to write lyrics based on literary works for “In Utero” might be the clue to the meaning of it as a form of self-depreciation. The second track on this side is “Milk It”, and it’s one of Nirvana’s finest moments. The essence is all there on “Milk It”, the lyrics,the guitar experiments, the heavy drums and bass. “Milk It” has one of the best lyrics in the whole album. “Pennyroyal Tea” was another hit for the band, although only released as a single in 1994 after Cobain’s death. This beautiful song it’s another Beatlesque effort of Cobain, and it sounds great. Again, lyrically and musically one of the best in the album featuring another literary reference this time to songwriter/poet Leonard Cohen, the song starts with Cobain vocals, nothing but his voice and acoustic guitar and goes on to a very screamed chorus and one of the best Nirvana guitar solos. “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”, the song the band used to open the concerts in their final tour it’s reminiscent of Sonic Youth, features a lot of the classic crafted noise and feedback along with a powerful non stop drumming beat by Dave Grohl played along Novoselic’s bass. “tourette’s”, originally called “The Eagle Has Landed” and played live for the first time in 1992 at the Reading Festival, it’s a short Punk Rock song with no real lyric content but a powerful guitar riff and rhythm section, I consider it one of the albums best tracks. The album closes with “All Apologies” that became more famous in the “Unplugged In New York” acoustic version shortly before Cobain’s death. The unplugged performance was often used as a music video for the song, however, the album version it’s much more powerful, as for the first time Nirvana uses Cello along with the heavy parts of the song, it’s a storm of musical electricity and the ultimate fusion between Classical and Rock music. Lyrically Cobain uses a recurrent word on his lyrics when he sings “Everyone Is Gay” which is intended to have double meaning, as “gay” being happy or “gay” as in sexuality. Cobain was a outspoken figure for LGBT rights, he often liked to play with lyrics and attribute double meaning to it. “In Utero” features a hidden track “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip” that was not featured in the U.S versions of the album. The song it’s a long improvisational jam, not as corrosive as “Endless, Nameless” on “Nevermind”, and with some lose lyrics sung along to it. It’s listed on the album as the “American Dollar Purchase Incentive Track”. It was recorded in Brazil and features Hole members and Cobain on bass and vocals.



Release

A full release of the album took place on September 21st, 1993 and it debuted at No.1 on the Hot 200. However another hurdle came in the way, retail American chain stores Wal-Mart and Kmart refused to sell the album. Wal-Mart claimed it did not carry the album due to lack of consumer demand, while Kmart representatives explained that the album “didn’t fit within our merchandise mix”. In fact, both chains feared that customers would be offended by the artwork on the album’s back cover. DGC issued a new version of the album with reworked packaging to the stores in March 1994. This version featured edited album artwork, listed the name of “Rape Me” as “Waif Me”, and included the Scott Litt remix of “Pennyroyal Tea”. A spokesperson for Nirvana explained that the band decided to edit the packaging because as kids Cobain and Novoselic were only able to buy music from the two chain stores; as a result they “really want to make their music available to kids who don’t have the opportunity to go to mom-and-pop stores”. The release of the album was helped with the singles “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies”. Only one music video was completed for the album, “Heart-Shaped Box” that was directed by Anton Corbijn and included several themes of the album packaging. The video was dark, somber and among other things showed the band in a Hospital near the deathbed of a Christ-like figure. The original video had a scene that was censored and cut from the final release, which was Cobain laying dead in a field covered in flowers.

Artwork

The art director for “In Utero” was Robert Fisher, who had designed all of Nirvana’s releases on DGC. Most of the ideas for the artwork for the album and related singles came from Cobain. The cover of the album is an image of a Transparent Anatomical Manikin, with angel wings superimposed. Cobain created the collage on the back cover, which he described as “Sex and woman and In Utero and vaginas and birth and death”, that consists of model fetuses, a turtle shell and models of turtles, and body parts lying in a bed of orchids and lilies. The collage had been set up on the floor of Cobain’s living room and was photographed by Charles Peterson after an unexpected call from Cobain.The album’s track listing and re-illustrated symbols from Barbara G. Walker’s The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects were then positioned around the edge of the collage. The inner sleeve and inside booklet on the CD displays the lyrics for the songs (except “tourette’s” and “Galoons”) and a montage of photographs including band photos.


Personal Notes From 1993

I first bought “In Utero” when it came out in September 1993, I was 15 turning to 16 and as most of the teenagers from that period Nirvana was one of my favorite bands. I knew very little about their debut “Bleach” aside of the most popular songs such as “About A Girl”, and “Nevermind” was for me what better described the band back then, my favorite song on it was “Lithium”. As far as I remember, the first glimpse I heard of “In Utero” was the song “Heart-Shaped Box” which along with the music video,  was promoting the upcoming album back then. The minute I heard that song it got me closer to Nirvana then any of the songs from “Nevermind”. When “In Utero” was finally released I went to a nearby record store where I remember seeing a big display of it on a wall that gathered all the formats, CD, Cassette and LP. As I was short on money I opted for the cheapest format, which was the cassette. Over the next weeks I remember listening to it over and over, at home and in my Walkman all the time. To this day “In Utero” not only symbolizes the true essence of Nirvana’s sound but also a moment in time where we all hoped for the great music Nirvana was still going to make in the future. A few months later Nirvana started their European tour in the city where I lived, I’ve been planning to attend the show since it was first announced back in late 1993, however, a last moment situation prevented me to go. To be less upset about it, I said to myself that there would be other opportunities in the future to watch the band playing live. A little bit over a month Kurt Cobain was dead and “In Utero” made more sense than ever. This is an essential album to anyone who likes pure inspiring Rock music, unfiltered  poignant and relevant. It was a game change for Nirvana and a game change also for a lot of their fans back then. Me included. 5 years later, after attending a Foo Fighters concert, I was lucky enough to meet Dave Grohl in person.We spent a few moments together and talked about music, at one point we talked about his time in Nirvana which he remembered as “good memories” and that, also sums up what Nirvana music is for many people still to this day, oddly enough, “All Apologies” was playing through the speakers of the park where we met each other.



Side 1
1 “Serve The Servants”
2 “Scentless Apprentice” (Cobain, Novoselic, Grohl)
3 “Heart-Shaped Box”
4 “Rape Me”
5 “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge In Seattle”
6 “Dumb”

Side 2
7 “Very Ape”
8 “Milk It”
9 “Pennyroyal Tea”
10 “Radio Friendly Unit Shiffter”
11 “tourette’s”
12 “All Apologies”
13 “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip” (only on non U.S releases)

All tracks written by Kurt Cobain, except where noted.

Personnel:
Kurt Cobain:  guitar, vocals, art direction, design, photography
Krist Novoselic: bass guitar
Dave Grohl: drums, percussion

Additional Personnel:
Kera Schaley: cello on “All Apologies” and “Dumb”

Production:
Steve Albini: producer, engineer
Robert Fisher: art direction, design, photography
Alex Grey: illustrations
Adam Kasper: second engineer
Michael Lavine: photography
Scott Litt: mixing
Bob Ludwig: audio mastering
Karen Mason: photography
Charles Peterson: photography
Kera Schaley: cello on “All Apologies” and “Dumb”
Neil Wallace: photography
Bob Weston: technician

Recorded during: January 21, 1993, February 12–26, 1993 at  BMG Ariola Ltda., Studio B, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls, Minnesota
Produced by: Steve Albini , Scott Litt
Release Date: September 21st, 1993
Label: Geffen

Singles:
“Heart-Shaped Box” Released: August 30, 1993
“All Apologies” / “Rape Me” Released: December 6, 1993
“Pennyroyal Tea” Released: April 1994 (cancelled) April 19, 2014 (re-released)

Strongest tracks:

“Serve The Servants”, “Scentless Apprentice”, “Heart-Shaped Box”, “Rape Me”, “Milk It”, “Pennyroyal Tea”, “Radio Friendly Unit Shiffter”, “tourette’s”, “All Apologies”



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Watch the 1993 TV ad for “In Utero” featuring Nirvana and Bobcat Goldthwait



Watch the 1993 music video for “Heart-Shaped Box” by Nirvana

Listen to “In Utero” Deluxe Edition that includes the B-Sides and demos of the album on Spotify

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