'In Utero' at 20: What We're Saying Now and What We Said Then

In Utero, Nirvana's unflinchingly brutal final statement, turns 20 today, and the Internet is fittingly aflutter with praise, reminiscences, and tributes for Kurt's Last Stand.

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In Utero, Nirvana's unflinchingly brutal final statement, turns 20 today, and the Internet is fittingly aflutter with praise, reminiscences, and tributes for Kurt's Last Stand.

From Billboard, we get a track-by-track overview of what is perhaps the most abrasive animal ever to arrive on a Geffen subsidiary label; from NME, a slideshow of things you didn't know about the record (warning: you might know them). MySpace goes all out by getting a gang of music writers to pen 12 short stories inspired by each of the album's songs—"Rape Me," "Heart-Shaped Box," and "All Apologies" are the ones you'll recognize—while Rolling Stone has already managed to get touring guitarist Pat Smear to reflect on the band's final year. MTV argues that no band could pull it off today, though that's not really true—they'd just post it for free on BandCamp or whatever and let fans sift through the fuzz.

Which is to say that In Utero is rather a strange album to pay tribute to and an even stranger one to love, given that, by most accounts, Cobain wanted us all to hate it. Or, at the very least, not play it on the radio. This was the one Big Uncompromising Statement to blast a hole in Nevermind's radio-ready veneer—the one where they hired Electrical Audio maestro Steve Albini to dial back the pop sheen, the one that Cobain wanted to title I Hate Myself and Want to Die before realizing that wasn't the best idea, the one whose second single finds the frontman yowling "Rape me! Rape me!" over and over in a blistering scream. "The grown-ups don't like it," Cobain bragged shortly before the release, but wasn't that the point? As a 1993 Chicago Tribune article lightly phrased matters:

The members of Nirvana—Kurt Cobain, Chris Novoselic and David Grohl—"were ecstatic about the record," Albini said. "But every person they work for tells them it's terrible."

Today, critics are fawning over the record's bravery and its harrowing pull, using adjectives like "classic" and "seminal," and for good reason—this is powerful stuff, a fitting swan song for the songwriter who took "It's better to burn out than to fade away" all too literally. And much of it isn't close to "unlistenable," especially the melodic turns ("Heart-Shaped Box," "All Apologies"); "Dumb" is positively tender. But in 1993? Reviewers weren't so sure. Writing for NME, John Mulvey recognized the nature of the beast, but wasn't sure it measured up:

But Nirvana's great virtue has always been their capacity to make music that, through unavoidable pop drive, transcends alternative rock stereotypes. Here, Kurt seems embarrassed of that. These songs are the product of a scowling spoilt brat re-asserting his right to be antagonistic and difficult once he's shown his audience how clever he is. [ . . . ] As a follow-up to one of the best records of the past ten years it just isn't quite there.

In Entertainment Weekly, David Browne was similarly suspicious and employed the term "gaseous aftertaste," which makes you wonder if he's writing about an album or a bottle of wine:

The gripping ''Rape Me'' opens with the chords of ''Teen Spirit''—intentional, one hopes—and builds into a furious rant with lyrics as dumb as anything on a death-metal anthem (''My favorite inside source/I'll kiss your open sores''). All of this is more articulate than any Soundgarden lyric, but too often, Cobain just comes off sounding petulant. That hostility leaves In Utero with a gaseous aftertaste.

Rolling Stone's David Fricke, though, embraced the fury of it all:

In Utero is a lot of things—brilliant, corrosive, enraged and thoughtful, most of them all at once. But more than anything, it's a triumph of the will.

...while TIME's Christopher John Farley warned that "Rape Me" would be misinterpreted by "beer-blown frat boys" and offered instructions for locating melodies amidst the hoarse-voiced rubble:

[...] many of the Albini pieces sound ravaged, almost ruined; but as with buried treasures, there are rewards for persistence and exploration. If you listen repeatedly to such sonically explosive songs as Serve the Servants and Pennyroyal Tea, the structure of each gradually becomes clear, and melodies surface.

Looks like we've finally parsed them. The deluxe reissue of In Utero is out later this month, and you have to wonder what the self-loathing Cobain would make of all this appreciation and pomp.

But then, it's all too clear he never intended to stick around for it. As he screams in the caustic "Scentless Apprentice," "You can't fire me 'cuz I quit." "Petulant," indeed—or maybe just depressed.

Band photos: Associated Press.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.