In Utero at 20: What is Nirvana’s legacy?

Nirvana sold tens of millions of albums, then tragically imploded. Twenty years on from their third album, In Utero, Greg Kot looks back.

A lot was at stake when Nirvana went into Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, in 1993 to record their third album, In Utero. The Seattle band had stormed the pop charts, toppling even Michael Jackson from his usual number 1 spot, when they released Nevermind two years earlier. Since then, singer Kurt Cobain had become the poster child for conflicted rock stars, a songwriter who coveted fame even as he embraced the noisy, underground sound of the indie ‘80s.

In Utero was the album that tried to bring those two worlds together. The cynical punk rocker had crashed the MTV party, and now what? Cobain kicked off his most scrutinised album with the words "Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I'm bored and old."

Twenty years later, those lyrics have proven at least partially prophetic. Cobain never got old; he killed himself in April 1994 at the age of 27. Nirvana imploded and the 'alternative rock’ era started coming undone almost as quickly as it began. But the business of Nirvana continues to pay off. For example, this year, a new box set, In Utero: 20th Anniversary Deluxe Reissue chronicles the album’s evolution – from demos to live performances – in exhaustive detail.

Nirvana represented the leading edge of a movement born in the sub-basement of ’70s punk and the ‘80s underground. Nirvana sold tens of millions of albums. Most of their primary influences and predecessors were lucky to sell a few thousand. Most toured in battered vans, played shows in ratty bars and released records on independent labels that depended on college radio and fanzines run by hardcore followers for exposure. Within that universe, a radical set of guiding principles emerged: a distrust of corporate dollars and mainstream values; an appreciation for outsiders, especially women and gays; an embrace of stylistic and musical ‘authenticity’; and an idea of punk as a type of folk music, with a nastier guitar tone.  

To those who tracked key bands and artists on the punk and post-punk timeline – the Ramones, The Clash, The Replacements, Fugazi, Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies – the arrival of Nevermind and its 30 million-selling ascent to world domination represented a triumph of these values. The ‘good guys’ won, but it didn’t last.

Sound of the underground

After Nevermind, there was a rush of hits by bands and artists with underground pedigrees: Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, The Flaming Lips, The Breeders, The Offspring. And a bunch of veteran indie bands that didn’t sound like anyone’s idea of pop acts improbably signed major-label deals, including the Butthole Surfers, Ween, the Melvins and The Jesus Lizard.

But when ‘alternative’ turned into a commercial radio format and a gaggle of cookie-cutter bands emerged with a sound tailored for it – Seven Mary Three, Bush, Candlebox, the Stone Temple Pilots – its days as a vital movement ended. Cobain sensed how the music he loved was being co-opted in the songs he wrote for In Utero.

Rape Me twisted the riff from Nirvana’s breakthrough single, Smells Like Teen Spirit into something more sinister, a commentary on Cobain being miscast as a grunge celebrity. Milk It and Radio Friendly Unit Shifter framed personal disappointment inside acerbic music-industry metaphors.

Feeding back

With one of Cobain’s heroes, Steve Albini, doing the production, In Utero blew out the edges of Nirvana’s sound, giving Dave Grohl’s drums and Krist Novoselic’s bass more presence and letting Cobain’s guitar swim in feedback. The singer’s voice was tucked deeper inside the maelstrom rather than out front as most radio-friendly songs demanded. The original mix was steeped in the spirit of the ‘80s punk records that Cobain loved, some of which Albini played on or recorded. But after the sessions had wrapped, Cobain began to have misgivings, in part because the feedback he was getting from higher up the chain at his Geffen label was less than enthusiastic.

Albini said the corporate suits were out to quash the record. Cobain lashed out at journalists for reporting the story for fear that his punk-rock cred would be tarnished. Scott Litt ended up remixing two tracks. His mixes are lined up next to Albini’s on the box set, and the differences now seem like so much hoo-hah about minutiae. In the end, In Utero sold spectacularly well, and the album still holds up as a volatile merger of melody and mayhem. The rest of the box set offers a bunch of mostly unnecessary padding – 70 tracks in all, most of which provide little in the way of revelation. At its peak, Nirvana was a mightily focused and devastating three-piece rock band – but we knew that already.

What to make of the trio’s legacy? Cobain felt a constant tension between his desire to be heard and to remain true to his punk ideals. He sought not just to become part of the mainstream conversation but to elevate it. With each album he proved more adept at answering that challenge. Yet through no fault of his own the excess of the In Utero box continues a troubling pattern of cash-ins. It’s the third Nirvana box set to land in the last decade, in addition to three single-disc compilations and a live album, plus a volume of the singer’s Journals. Cobain wanted his music to endure, but the notion of repackaging his past over and over again surely wasn’t part of his agenda. In death, Cobain has become exactly the type of commodity he spent his life fighting not to become.

Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here.

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