Nirvana’s third album was burdened with expectations almost as soon as it was even an idea; the success of Nevermind, their 1991 breakthrough, thrust them under a high-performance microscope, onto the gossip pages, and into the rumor mill. Stories that In Utero, recorded by noise king Steve Albini, did not please the band’s label (because it was uncommercial) abounded in the months leading up to its release; Kurt Cobain told SPIN he felt like he was “stuck in a void” because of its tormented birthing process.
“Teenage angst has paid off well; now I’m bored and old,” Cobain drawls as the record opens; he had turned 26 during the album’s recording sessions. This slyly-expressed weariness defines much of In Utero; Cobain’s screeched “Get awayyy!” as Dave Grohl bashes behind him on the grimacing “Scentless Apprentice” could have been directed at any number of people lusting after his newfound fame, while the defiantly downcast “Rape Me” is a wide-eyed challenge for people to do their worst to one another, from the repurposed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” riff on down.
What much of the chatter about In Utero‘s rawness misses, though, is the moments of intricate beauty hidden underneath the self-loathing and yowled lyrics. The low-in-the-mix harmonies on the chorus of “Pennyroyal Tea” undercut Cobain’s clenched vocalizing of the title’s abortion-inducer; the album’s closer, “All Apologies,” has a haunting cello counterpoint (played by Kera Schaley) that gets increasingly frenetic as the song sways toward its resigned conclusion. “All in all is all we are,” Cobain groans to close out the track, one of his band’s most lasting radio hits. In Utero‘s reputation as Nirvana’s “difficult” album is undercut by moments like these, when Cobain’s pain and his bandmates’ musicianship create moments of near-transcendence.