Nirvana 'In Utero' 20th Anniversary: Why Legendary Rock Band's Final Album is Worth Remembering in 2013 [VIDEOS]

By Carolyn Menyes ( | Sep 13, 2013 03:17 PM EDT
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Today, Sept. 13, 2013, marks the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's final studio album "In Utero," the last offering from the groundbreaking grunge band before Kurt Cobain's suicide in April 1994. On Sept. 24, its record company with a deluxe re-issue will celebrate "In Utero", featuring B-sides and bonus tracks, including two never-before-heard songs. "In Utero" didn't throw Michael Jackson off the charts like "Smells Like Teen Spirit" did, nor did it change the face of rock music like "Nevermind." So, why is "In Utero" worth celebrating today?

Simply put, it's one of the best rock records of the '90s. What helps to make "In Utero" a masterpiece in the Nirvana catalog is not just its status as the last studio release from the band before Cobain's death in April 1994 -- it's the album's concept and execution as a whole.

Upon its release in 1993, "In Utero" was a success, despite its differences from the massively successful "Nevermind." Led by the single "Heart-Shaped Box," "In Utero" sold 180,000 copies in its first week, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, despite not being carried by major chain stores like Walmart and K-Mart due to the controversial song title "Rape Me," which is printed on the back cover of the album.

It may seem like the now-legendary status of Nirvana as a whole and "In Utero" in particular is because of Cobain's suicide. Sure, it's not often that a rock band will put out its masterpiece less than seven months before the death of the main creative force and lead singer. But, "In Utero" would still stand the test of time and be celebrated 20 years later if Cobain were still alive today.

The release of "In Utero" is worth remembering for its culmination of all things Nirvana, and thus, its summation of the 1990s' Seattle sound. "In Utero" blended together the thrash influences and hardness of "Bleach" with the accessibility of "Nevermind" to make an album that was listenable, accessible and interesting.

The musicianship on "In Utero" is simply spectacular. The quiet/loud dichotomy Nirvana introduced the mainstream to on "Nevermind" is perfected on their follow-up. "In Utero" detracts from the poppy, polished sound of "Nevermind" to help Nirvana return to their heavier, thrashier roots. For instance, the previously mentioned "Heart-Shaped Box" winds throughout the first verse until the explosion of sound in the first chorus. The punches of Cobain's "Hey! Wait!" wails are hard-hitting, surprising and, most importantly, effective and memorable.

"Rape Me" follows a similar pattern as "Heart-Shaped Box" but builds slowly and purposefully, until the final chorus where Cobain and drummer/back-up singer Dave Grohl exchange reaching screams.

The quieter tracks on "In Utero" also help add to the build of the album. Though "Nevermind" did have its small moments, Nirvana was able to fully expand on their acoustic numbers for their third studio album. Notably, "Dumb" and "All Apologies" feature simple instrumentation, keeping things quiet so Cobain's insightful, introspective lyrics can shine through.

The personal nature of Cobain's lyricism adds to the deep fan connection on the album. From the very first song "Serve the Servants," which touches on Cobain's strained relationship with his mostly absent father and the public scrutiny of his wife Courtney Love, it's clear that this was a deeper venture for the band. "Serve the Servants" is only the beginning.

The previously mentioned "All Apologies" heartbreakingly depicts Cobain's own self-doubt and his feelings of personal shortcomings. "I wish I was like you / Easily amused / Find my nest of salt / Everything is my fault," he sings in the second verse. Looking back, it's easy to hear Cobain's pain.

"In Utero" doesn't just take lyrical inspiration from Cobain's personal life. Songs also pull from literature ("Scentless Apprentice"), history ("Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle") and the music industry ("Radio Friendly Unit Shifter").

Though it was their last studio album, it's not like "In Utero" was the exact last offering from Nirvana. Not only did "Unplugged in New York" come out after Cobain's death, B-sides and rarities from the post-"In Utero" era have also been released over the years. Most notably, "You Know You're Right," a crawling, haunting song that features powerful, painful screams from Cobain was released on the "Nirvana" compilation album in 2002. "You Know You're Right" indicated a darker sound for the oftentimes-poppy grunge rock band.

"Do Re Mi," a demo from the 2004 box set showcased the ability for Nirvana to maintain their emotional edge even near the end of their days as a band. Recorded in 1994, "Do Re Mi" is a simple acoustic track, reflecting the more indie elements of Nirvana's influences.

Twentieth anniversaries of major releases come and go. Anniversaries of rock stars' deaths and momentous occasions in music come and go, as well. But truly masterful works occur rarely in music, and they should be celebrated. This is the case of Nirvana's "In Utero."

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