I am about to make one of the most uncontroversial statements of all time. Nirvana was the greatest band of the 1990s. While I'm not comfortable saying that they released the best albums of the 1990s (Radiohead tossed two pretty good albums our way during the 90s), their contribution to pop culture in general and rock music specifically cannot be overstated. I am willing to make, and stand by, a potentially controversial statement: their mega hit album, Nevermind wasn't their best album. Their follow-up In Utero bested their 1991 effort in almost every way possible, and, one week in advance of the album's 15th anniversary, I think it is certainly an album worth revisiting.
I think that my generation tends to have a hard time grappling with the titanic name in music that is Nirvana. It's a name like The Beatles or Elvis. We feel some kind of obligation to pledge allegiance to Kurt Cobain, Krist Novaselic, Dave Grohl and the band name that is, ultimately, bigger than any individual: Nirvana. The major difference here is that Nirvana is better than both The Beatles and Elvis.
Speaking personally, Nirvana's In Utero was, along with Green Day's Insomniac, the first album I ever purchased. I still remember bringing it home and putting it on the CD player at my house. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before. It was loud, but oddly inaccessible. Something people forget is that the album's most accessible track, "All Apologies" is the last track on the album. Even the singles, "Heart Shaped Box" and "Rape Me' are incredibly inaccessible, the former having almost no discernible hook and the latter having a hook, but generally devolves into Cobain screaming 'rape me.' For my eight year old ears it was too inaccessible, especially when compared with the hook filled (although still rather inaccessible in it's own pop-punk way) Insomniac.
I had to put off In Utero. It had to lie in wait for a time to grab my attention, which it did in a big way when I got into high school. I had a six month long period when I was about 14 and Nirvana was the alpha and omega, the beginning and end of music. Of course this had the adverse effect of getting burned out on Nirvana, and I had to put it away for another seven years.
I have finally picked the album back up again, well I have finally picked up Nirvana in general again. Before Nevermind was the big deal, but now something has changed. I have been listening to In Utero almost non-stop for about three days and I have discovered something strange. I used to think of this album as only their last album. I listened to it, but without paying it any kind of mind. Now that I have given the album the attention it deserves it has revealed itself as rough, loud, borderline nihilistic, and a work of true genius. This isn't the pseudo-punk Nevermind Nirvana with a glossy cover, nor is it the Bleach Nirvana; a band trying to find it's sound. This is a Nirvana that has shrugged off critical and commercial success and tries to find a true grunge sound.
That term, "grunge" has come to be known as a genre that cherry picked the best parts of 1980s punk, hardcore, and alternative rock, threw them into a blender, and existed as what came out. On In Utero Cobain and Co. are out to do something different. They weren't looking to replicate previous success, they were looking to find a completely new sound, and what makes In Utero such a heartbreaking listen is just how fucking close they got to breaking through and making something completely different. It is the closest any band has gotten to bringing something new to the rock table since the first punk bands in the late 70s. Not only are they looking for something different, but the record oozes with the angst, anger, and despair of a band that is trying to experiment under the enormous weight of public expectations following immense commercial success.
I fear the legacy of Kurt Cobain the Troubled Rock Star will always supersede Kurt Cobain the songwriter. It is one of the additional tragedies of his suicide; from what I understand one of his great fears was that his celebrity would overcome him, and his suicide more or less confirmed that fear. Cobain now belongs to that class of celebrity that are remembered less for their art and more for their death. It's really too bad, because that can really obfuscate one simple fact: the man was a songwriter of truly genius order. As a last testament, In Utero is somewhat problematic. It isn't difficult to find pain and loneliness in the lyrics to the songs, but there is also the hope and excitement of a band on the cutting edge of rock music.
One of the things so often forgot about the album as well is that it's sales were flagging at the time of Cobain's death, which came only about six months after the album's release, and if we were being brutally honest Pearl Jam was the more popular band to come out of Seattle in the early 1990s. All things considered, was this album as revolutionary as Nevermind? No. But it is better. Made all the more so because it captures the best band of a generation attempting to change rock and roll. They don't succeed, but they come close and at least they fucking tried. I truly believe that they would have succeeded in changing music had they lasted until a fourth studio album. As it is, this is Nirvana's swan song, and ne'er has a more beautiful song been sung.