In Utero is the third and final studio album by the American grunge band Nirvana, released on September 21, 1993 by DGC Records. The album's abrasive and aggressive sound was a departure from the polished production of the band's breakthrough second album, Nevermind (1991), due in part to the selection of recording engineer Steve Albini. The subject matters of the songs included dysfunctional family, cancer, issues of privacy, and abortion.
"Heart-Shaped Box" was the first single released from the album, followed by "All Apologies/Rape Me", which was released as a double A-side single due to the explicit nature of the latter song. Both singles topped the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart in the United States. "Pennyroyal Tea" was intended to be released as the third single in April 1994, but was cancelled after the death of the band's frontman, Kurt Cobain.
While In Utero did not sell as well as Nevermind, it was a commercial and critical success. The album was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America by the end of 1993; it was most recently certified 5x platinum, and now ranks in the top 100 bestselling albums in the US.
Nirvana, under the guise "The Simon Ritchie Bluesgrass Ensemble", entered Pachyderm Studio in February 1993 to record In Utero. Albini did not meet the band until the first day of recording, though he had spoken to the band beforehand about the type of album they wanted to make. Albini observed that "they wanted to make precisely the sort of record that I'm comfortable doing. Before embarking on the sessions, Albini was sent a tape of demos the band had cut in Brazil in January 1993. The only others present for the duration of the session were Robert S Weston IV (studio maintenance technician), Carter Nicole Launt (chef) and her dog, Z. During the sessions Albini instituted a strict policy of ignoring everyone except for the band in order to prevent the band's managers and label from interfering.
The band recorded the tracks live and kept virtually everything they recorded. Albini and Weston estimate that it took four or maybe five days to record the basic tracks, a couple of days for overdubbing and a final few days mixing. They finished slightly ahead of the two-week deadline, and the album was mixed in under a week; Cobain added additional guitar tracks to about half the songs, then added guitar solos, and finally vocals. The total recording costs for In Utero were $24,000, and on top of that, Albini took a flat fee of $100,000. Albini refused points on record sales since he considers the practice to be immoral.
Albini commented that, "On a couple of songs [Cobain] used this broken guitar amplifier that had a really brutal sound and he was talking about how he had to keep it away from the technicians that they toured with because he was afraid that they were going fix it and then the sound would go away." Cobain is believed to have employed his Sunburst Univox Custom on most of the guitar parts. On one song he played a rare all-aluminium guitar called a Veleno, which Albini had brought along specifically. According to Albini the "strained, distorted guitar sounds" came from the use of a Fender Twin Reverb amp, with three of its four power tubes broken or missing. Everything was recorded on a vintage 24-track analog board (Neve console). For the most part there was no studio trickery utilized during recording; the only "special effect" Albini could recall was a vocal effect on "Milk It" and "Rape Me", "There's a really dry, really loud voice at the end of 'Milk It' [. . .] that was also done at the end of 'Rape Me,' where [Cobain] wanted the sound of him screaming to just overtake the whole band.
Cobain later claimed in Ooz magazine that lyrics finished for only half the songs and the rest came from messing around in the studio. Yet in the biography, Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, he claimed he again finished writing most of the lyrics within days of recording the vocals, culling most of them from notebooks full of poetry. This assertion (that Cobain wrote a considerable portion of In Utero lyrics in the studio), is readily refuted. All album tracks except "Serve the Servants", "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle" and "Very Ape" had been played live prior to recording the album, in most cases with identical lyrics, and minor additions or changes to "Rape Me" and "All Apologies".
However, the band members began to have doubts about the record's sound; Cobain remarked "The first time I played it at home, I knew there was something wrong. The whole first week I wasn’t really interested in listening to it at all, and that usually doesn’t happen. I got no emotion from it, I was just numb. The group concluded that the problem was that the bass and lyrics were inaudible, and approached Albini to remix the album. Albini declined, saying "[Cobain] wanted to make a record that he could slam down on the table and say, 'Listen, I know this is good, and I know your concerns about it are meaningless, so go with it.' And I don't think he felt he had that yet. .... My problem was that I feared a slippery slope. The band attempted to fix its concerns with the record during the mastering process with Bob Ludwig at his studio in Portland, Maine. Novoselic was pleased with the results, but Cobain still didn't feel the sound was perfect.
Soon afterward, in April 1993 Albini remarked to the Chicago Tribune that he doubted Geffen would release the completed album. While there was no immediate reply to his remarks from the group or the label, Newsweek ran a similar article soon after that focused wider attention on the story. Nirvana denied any pressure from its label to change the album's sound. The band sent a letter to Newsweek that said that the article's author "ridiculed our relationship with our label based on totally erronous [sic] information"; the band also reprinted the letter in a full-page ad in Billboard. Geffen president Ed Rosenblatt insisted in a press release that Geffen would release anything the band submitted, and label founder David Geffen made the unusual move of personally calling Newsweek to complain about the article.
Nirvana wanted to do further work on the recorded tracks, and considered working with producer Scott Litt and remixing some tracks with Andy Wallace (who had mixed Nevermind). Albini vehemently disagreed, and claimed he had an agreement with the band that it would not modify the tracks without his involvement. Albini initially refused to give the album master tapes to Gold Mountain, but relented after a phone call from Novoselic. The band decided against working with Wallace and chose to remix and augment the songs "Heart-Shaped Box" and "All Apologies" with Litt in May 1993. One song, "I Hate Myself and Want to Die", was dropped from the tracklisting because Cobain felt there were too many "noise" songs on the album. The rest of the album was left unaltered aside from a remastering which sharpened the bass guitar sound and increased the volume of the vocals by approximately three decibels.
In Utero was released on September 24, 1993. DGC Records took a low-key approach to promoting the album in order to avoid hype. Geffen/DGC's head of marketing explained to Billboard prior to the album's release that the label was taking a similar approach to promoting Nevermind, explaining that the label "will set things up, duck, and get out of the way". The label aimed its promotion at alternative markets and press, and released the album on the vinyl record as part of this strategy. Upon its release, In Utero debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 album chart. At the time of its release, retail chain stores Wal-Mart and Kmart refused to sell the album. According to The New York Times, Wal-Mart claimed the album was not carried due to lack of consumer demand, while Kmart representatives explained that the album "didn't fit within our merchandise mix.
Time's Christopher John Farley wrote in his review of the album, "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. Rolling Stone reviewer David Fricke wrote, "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. Entertainment Weekly gave the album a B+. Reviewer David Browne wrote "Kurt Cobain hates it all" and commented that the sentiment pervades the record. Browne argued, "The music is often mesmerizing, cathartic rock & roll, but it is rock & roll without release, because the band is suspicious of the old-school rock cliches such a release would evoke. NME gave the album an eight out of ten rating. Reviewer John Mulvey had doubts about the record; he concluded, "As a document of a mind in flux - dithering, dissatisfied, unable to come to terms with sanity - Kurt [Cobain] should be proud of [the album]. As a follow-up to one of the best records of the past ten years it just isn't quite there. Ben Thompson of The Independent commented that in spite of the album's more abrasive songs, "In Utero is beautiful far more often than it is ugly", and added, "Nirvana have wisely neglected to make the unlistenable punk-rock nightmare they threatened us with.
Though Cobain himself stated that "for the most part [In Utero]'s very impersonal, much of the album is related to his personal life. "Serve the Servants" references Cobain's personal experiences, both recent and past. The opening line "Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I'm bored and old" references Nirvana's unexpected success and acclaim. The song also references the treatment of Courtney Love in the press through a metaphor about witch-hunts ("If she floats then she is not a witch like we thought"), and belittles the impact of his parents' divorce ("That legendary divorce is such a bore"). However, most of the song is about Cobain's father; in a rough draft of the album's liner notes, he wrote that "I guess this song is for my father, who is incapable of communicating at the level of affection in which I have always expected.
Similarly, "Rape Me" contains a reference to a Vanity Fair article about Courtney Love, that accused her of taking heroin while pregnant and included an anonymous quote from a close friend of the band. The article was so hurtful to Cobain that he contemplated a double suicide with Love the day after their child, Frances Bean Cobain, was born. The line "my favorite inside source" from the bridge of "Rape Me" reflects Cobain's feelings of betrayal at the anonymous source in the article.
Other songs contain thinly-veiled attacks on the media. "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle" was inspired by actress Frances Farmer, with whom Cobain was fascinated, particularly the fictionalized account of her life presented in the novel Shadowland. Although inspired by an outside influence, Cobain draws a parallel to his own life, and compares the unfair treatment of Farmer to the treatment he received in the press. The song "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" is an attack on the music industry. In the music industry, the term "radio friendly" refers to a song which radio stations consider "airable", while the term "unit shifter" refers to a song that can sell an album.
Although Cobain had flirted with medical themes in the past, it had never been to the extent as on In Utero. In addition to the medical-themed artwork, many of the songs contain mentions of or references to semen, hymens, open sores, parasites and abortion. "Milk It" and "Pennyroyal Tea" are perhaps the most medical-oriented songs on the album.
The song "Scentless Apprentice" was written about Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, a historical horror novel about a perfumer's apprentice born with no body odor of his own but with a highly developed sense of smell, and who attempts to create the "ultimate perfume" for himself by killing virgin women and taking their scent.
The art director for In Utero was Robert Fisher, who had designed all of Nirvana's releases on DGC Records. Most of the ideas for the artwork for the album and related singles came from Cobain. Fisher recalled that "[Cobain] would just give me some loose odds and ends and say 'Do something with it.'
The cover of the album is an image of a Transparent Anatomical Mannikin, with angel wings superimposed. Cobain created the collage on the back cover, referred to as "Sex and woman and In Utero and vaginas and birth and death", which includes fetuses and body parts lying in a bed of orchids and lilies. The collage had been set up on the floor of Cobain's living room and was photographed by Charles Peterson after an unexpected call from Cobain. According to Peterson, "one Sunday afternoon, Kurt calls me up, and is like 'Hey, I want you to take that picture now.' [...] I rummaged for whatever film I had in the fridge, and went over. The album's track listing and re-illustrated symbols from Barbara G. Walker's The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects were then positioned around the edge of the collage.
The photograph of the heart-shaped box on the "Heart-Shaped Box" single was taken by Cobain and given to Fisher with the request that he "make something pretty. Though Cobain would be less involved with the creation of the cover for "All Apologies/Rape Me", he had told Fisher to use seahorses giving birth; seahorses would also be on a promotional t-shirt and pin sold on several of Nirvana's tours. Cobain had no input for the artwork accompanying "Pennyroyal Tea".
"Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip" (Cobain, Grohl, Novoselic) is a bonus track, labeled a "devalued American dollar purchase incentive track", available on European, Mexican and Australian copies of In Utero, as well as various other non-U.S. pressings. It is a jam recorded in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in January 1993, and does not get a separate track position on the disc, starting at about 23 minutes after the end of "All Apologies".
|1993||Official UK Albums Chart||1|
|1993||Official Sweden Albums Chart||1|
|1993||Official Australian Albums Chart||2|
|1993||Official New Zealand Albums Chart||3|
|1993||Official Portugal Album Charts||4|
|1993||Official Holland Albums Chart||4|
|1993||Official Finland Albums Chart||5|
|1993||Official Norwegian Albums Chart||7|
|1993||Official Austrian Albums Chart||8|
|1993||Official Spanish Albums Chart||13|
|1993||Official Japanese Albums Chart||13|
|1993||Official German Albums Chart||14|
|1993||Official Switzerland Albums Chart||16|
|1993||Official Hungarian Albums Chart||40|
|1993||"Heart-Shaped Box"||Official UK Singles Chart||5|
|1993||"All Apologies/Rape Me"||Official UK Singles Chart||32|
|1993||"Heart-Shaped Box"||Official Irish Singles Chart||6|
|1993||"All Apologies/Rape Me"||Official Irish Singles Chart||20|
|1993||"Heart-Shaped Box"||Official New Zealand Singles Chart||9|
|1993||"All Apologies/Rape Me"||Official New Zealand Singles Chart||20|
|1993||"Heart-Shaped Box"||Official Australian Singles Chart||17|
|1993||"All Apologies/Rape Me"||Official Australian Singles Chart||58|
|1993||"Heart-Shaped Box"||Official French Singles Chart||37|
|1993||"All Apologies/Rape Me"||Official French Singles Chart||20|
|1993||"Heart-Shaped Box"||Official Finland Singles Chart||14|
|1993||"Heart-Shaped Box"||Official Sweden Singles Chart||16|
|1993||"Heart-Shaped Box"||Official Belgium Singles Chart||31|
|1993||"Heart-Shaped Box"||Official Holland Singles Chart||32|
|1993||"Heart-Shaped Box"||Modern Rock Tracks (U.S.)||1|
|1994||"All Apologies"||Modern Rock Tracks (U.S.)||1|
|1993||Heart-Shaped Box||Mainstream Rock Tracks (U.S.)||4|
|1994||"All Apologies"||Mainstream Rock Tracks (U.S.)||4|
|1993||"Heart-Shaped Box"||Hawaiian Island Charts||3|
|1993||"Rape Me"||Hawaiian Island Charts||3|
|1993||"All Apologies"||Hawaiian Island Charts||1|
|1993||"Heart-Shaped Box"||Australian Alternative Music Chart||1|
|1993||"Heart-Shaped Box"||Triple J Hottest 100||20|
|1994||"All Apologies/Rape Me"||Hot 100 Brasil||94|
|1993||"Heart-Shaped Box"||French Airplay Charts||52|
|1993||"All Apologies"||French Airplay Charts||21|
|1993||"Heart-Shaped Box"||Polish Airplay Charts||13|
|1993||"All Apologies"||Polish Airplay Charts||2|
|1993||"Heart-Shaped Box"||Slovakian Airplay Charts||4|
|1994||"Rape Me"||Slovakian Airplay Charts||16|
|1994||"All Apologies"||Latvian Airplay Charts||3|
|1994||"Rape Me"||Latvian Airplay Charts||12|
|1994||"Pennyroyal Tea"||Latvian Airplay Charts||20|
|Spin||United States||Best Albums of 1993||1993||3|
|Rolling Stone||U.S.||Album of the Year - Critics Pick||1993||1|
|Entertainment Weekly||U.S.||Top Albums of the Year||1993||5|
|Mojo||United Kingdom||Top 100 albums of 1993||1993||13|
|Kerrang!||UK||100 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die - Editors Choice||1998||1|
|Kerrang!||UK||100 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die - Readers Choice||1998||2|
|Q||UK||Best 50 Albums of Q's Lifetime||1999||20|
|Spin||UK||50 Most Essential Punk Records||1999||13|
|Spin||UK||90 Greatest Albums of the 90s||1999||18|
|Magnet||U.S.||Top 60 Albums, 1993–2003||2003||2|
|Rolling Stone||U.S.||500 Greatest Albums of All Time||2003||439|
|Pitchfork Media||U.S.||Top 100 Albums of the 1990s||2003||13|
|Spin||UK||100 Greatest Albums, 1985–2005||2005||51|
|Q||UK||Best 100 Albums Ever||2006||22|