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Alternative Mainstream: In Utero, 30 Years On

"Nirvana" by davetoaster via Flickr (licensed under CC BY 2.0.)

After the record-breaking release of Nevermind, Nirvana was in uncharted territory and grappling with a question still debated by alternative music fans today: how do you navigate the mainstream music industry without selling out? Their answer was 1993’s In Utero, released 30 years ago now. Darker, and more fragile than its predecessor, the band’s final studio release before the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994 is fraught with conflicts between loud and soft, life and death and still feels eerily fresh today.

Where Nevermind had been characterised with its clear-cut, ‘radio-friendly’ riffs, In Utero is neither here nor there - an eerie darkness lingering in the record. Its title literally means ‘In the Womb’, but Cobain’s original plan for the title was I Hate Myself and I Want to Die, and this conflict between birth and death resonates throughout the album.

The cover art, by Cobain, is filled with anatomical drawings of embryos and foetuses, a jarring image on an album that says "I wish I could eat your cancer" in the lyrics of its number-one song: 'Heart-Shaped Box'. The "umbilical noose" from the same track perhaps best embodies this conflict lyrically, a dark juxtaposition that leads to questions over whether they are simply Lennon-esque nonsense lyrics (Cobain described the album as ‘very impersonal’) or a jarringly raw insight into Cobain’s mind.

Sonically, the album is unabashed and unrelenting in its refusal to submit to what the ‘mainstream’ audience expected of them. Described by its producer Steve Albini - the album has a ‘primitive’ and ‘unvarnished’ sound that is much closer to the band’s punk-rock roots than their previous album. Cobain’s vocals weren’t double tracked, and Dave Grohl’s drums were recorded in a kitchenette near the studio to get a rawer reverb on heavier tracks like 'Very Ape'.

However, woven in between these much more hardcore tracks are contemplative, acoustic songs like 'All Apologies' and 'Dumb', creating two starkly different sounds that create a similar conflict in the album as its lyrical themes. Fearing In Utero’s alternative sound would alienate the band’s mainstream audience, Nirvana’s management urged them to remix the tracks; or as Cobain put it for Melody Maker “[They] said ‘It sounds like crap’’’.

Ultimately, Nirvana released In Utero exactly as Albini had produced it, with the exceptions of 'Heart-Shaped Box' and 'All Apologies' which were ultimately remixed (although both original Albini productions can now be listened to on the In Utero Deluxe Edition.) It went straight to number one. I think Time’s Christopher John Farley put it best: "Despite the fears of some alternative-music fans, Nirvana hasn't gone mainstream, though this potent new album may once again force the mainstream to go Nirvana."

Edited by Lucy Blackmur, Music Editor


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