Nirvana's In Utero vs. Nevermind: Which is better?
It's been 20 years since Nirvana released their final studio album, In Utero. Recorded at Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, the release is getting the deluxe treatment with a 70-song reissue, including a remastering of the original album tracks, B-sides, demos, and remixes of "Heart-Shaped Box," among others, on September 24.
Two years ago, Nevermind received a similar second look. But clearly one of these albums has stood the test of time better, when the 12 tracks of each are pitted against each other. Oh, I know, I know. "But what about Bleach?" "What about Unplugged?" No. These are the iconic recordings. It's Butch Vig vs. Steve Albini. A swimming baby against a winged study in female anatomy.
The overall outcome is surprising, especially given my vocalizations of both favor and displeasure at parts of both of these albums over the years since their respective releases. There are no two albums I have thought about or picked apart more -- although Licensed to Ill is a very close third -- in my lifetime. Picking them apart methodically was cathartic in a way I have trouble putting into words. Let the territorial pissings begin.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" vs. "Serve the Servants"
Is there any question which song comes out on top here? "Smells Like Teen Spirit," a song I have heard literally thousands of times, still sounds like the musical version of Napoleon firing cannons at the Sphinx. There is not one recap of, special about, re-examination, or other such look back at the '90s in which the first few seconds of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" are not utilized at some point during the opening credits. Not one single thing that took place between January 1, 1990, and December 31, 1999, defines the decade more concisely or as easily. "Serve the Servants" could have cured cancer or ended world hunger and this still would have only ended in a draw.
"In Bloom" vs. "Scentless Apprentice"
One of the tougher matchups between the two albums, but the throbbing, bleeding, raw nerve Cobain strikes on "Scentless Apprentice" (with much of the lyrical content based on Patrick Süskind's ultra-bizarre 1985 novel,Perfume
) has to win over "In Bloom"'s feisty and, in retrospect, fairly calculated pseudo-anger. I might enjoy singing along to "In Bloom" more when it gets played at a show or some '90s dance party, but corporate grunge songs still suck.Advantage: In Utero
"Come As You Are" vs. "Heart-Shaped Box"
"Come As You Are" has an opening nearly as recognizable as "Teen Spirit" and "Heart-Shaped Box" has some of Cobain's most overwrought, nonsensical lyrics. For this one, it comes down to the guitar solos to decide a winner and, despite their similarities (honestly, listen to those songs back-to-back and prepare to be a little freaked out), the fact that "Come As You Are" came first and had far superior drum work by Dave Grohl is why it's the better track. Hey, wait, I also have a new complaint: "I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black," regardless of context or claims of artistic metaphor, is a fucking terrible lyric in any capacity.
"Breed" vs. "Rape Me"
This is the weirdest matchup of the bunch, because each song sounds like it should have been on the other album. So, "Breed" forecastedIn Utero
's blistering, relentless rage while "Rape Me," despite its title and lyrical content, sounds like it could fit nicely in the middle of side two onNevermind
and also sounds a lot -- too much, really -- like "Teen Spirit." (Cobain really liked that chord progression quite a bit.) Hearing "Breed" again was really a treat, as it doesn't get played on the radio or anywhere else much these days, and as I sat listening to it, I was reminded that it was while listening to that very song when I decided Nirvana was my new favorite band.
"Lithium" vs. "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle"
This was an easier battle to decide than it initially appears. "Lithium" is sort of fun and is possibly the perfect embodiment of the loud-quiet-loud aesthetic they stole from the Pixies and then perfected. However, "Frances Farmer" has that weird, atonal intro and possibly the sludgiest of all their sludgy guitar riffs (coupled with a mountain of feedback), along with the retina-melting riff after Cobain declares he misses the comfort in being sad. If only he'd missed it enough to create an entire album full of shit like this. I remember hoping the fourth album, which, of course, never came to be, would arrive chock full of "Frances Farmer"-like material. It's the best song onIn Utero
and possibly the best song in Nirvana's catalog in a strictly musical sense, as it's inventive without being alienating and makes you want to play air guitar more than all but a handful of other songs by any band, while on "Lithium" Cobain is happy to find his friend. Yawn.
Advantage: In Utero
"Polly" vs. "Dumb"
These are essentially the same song and I always hated that side one of both albums ended like this. Well, that's not true, I liked "Polly" as the ending to side one ofNevermind
, then later thought it was stupid that they placed "Dumb" in the same spot onIn Utero
-- essentially creating a pair of fraternal twins. The decision forced "Dumb" (which is actually a slightly better song) into the ginger-kid role, to be forever picked on by his peers. But possession is 9/10 of the law and "Polly" had it first (and has the "dirty wings" line that still slays) and therefore "Polly" wins.
"Territorial Pissings" vs. "Very Ape"
The former features an intro of Krist Novoselic screaming the chorus of the Youngbloods' "Get Together" like it's a call to arms. The latter features the lyric, "I'm very ape and I'm very nice." Next.
"Drain You" vs. "Milk It"
Listening to "Drain You" now, especially the lyrical content, I'm surprised that this wasn't the breakout hit from the album. It could have so easily been adopted as the theme song to every early-'90s wannabe-Sid-and-Nancy couple the world over -- hopefully without the stabby ending. Sadly, it never got released as a single at all, though it's one of the three best songs onNevermind
. Oh, right, and then there's "Milk It," in which Cobain declares himself his own parasite and to this day it makes me feel like I need a shower when it's over -- it's the only Nirvana song I actively avoid. How did we not see the end coming more clearly?
"Lounge Act" Vs. "Pennyroyal Tea"
This is a no-brainer, especially given how indistinguishable "Lounge Act" is from the four billion other grunge songs that came after it. It's easilyNevermind
's low point. "Pennyroyal Tea" is a different story. I still think about Kurt Cobain sometimes, and sometimes I think about him for a long clip. He was the first rock star I identified with and with whom I wished to be friends. I now know many people who met him on his way up, shared meals and maybe a night or two with him. I incessantly ask those people questions about those encounters. Sometimes, I think about Nirvana as a band and, as tends to happen when you think about bands, a song of theirs starts to play in my head. When I think about the band, it's a few different songs, but when I have thought about just Cobain -- as I did quite often as I approached and then eclipsed age 27 and as I have for many different reasons since -- it was and is always "Pennyroyal Tea" that plays in my head. Though that may seem sad to some people, especially because that song is almost explicitly about Cobain's own crushing depression, it always makes me happy.
Advantage: In Utero
"Stay Away" vs. "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter"
The matchup here is a close one -- closer than it might seem. "Stay Away" does a fine job of propping up the back end ofNevermind
, which ends kind of oddly (more on that in a bit) and "Radio Friendly" has more of that feedback and a furious, smoking guitar riff that's as brutal as anything on a Slayer record. Both have their merits, but again, just like with "Frances Farmer," I found myself wishing the band would record an entire album of stuff like "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter." In retrospect, if they had, it would now likely be unlistenable garbage, but while "Stay Away" gets the A for effort, "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" gets the A, the homecoming queen, and a scholarship to an art school of its own choosing.
Advantage: In Utero
"On a Plain" vs. "Tourette's"
With its stellar chorus and lovely bridge, not to mention the still-beautiful, heartfelt outro (especially given what the band wanted to do withNevermind
), "On a Plain" should have ended the album. It wasn't to be, but on a similar note,In Utero
could have greatly benefitted from doing away with the 88 throwaway seconds that is "Tourette's." None of the lyrics are distinguishable aside from "mean heart, cold heart" and Cobain did far better feedback-filled guitar work on every other album -- includingIn Utero
. I still find the pun in the title "On a Plain" nearly inexcusable, but from day one I hated everything about "Tourette's" and have only grown to like it less with each successive listen.
"Something in the Way" vs. "All Apologies"
As with "Polly" and "Dumb," the band inadvertently created twins here but given the events that took place after the release ofIn Utero
and especially given the band's rendition of "All Apologies" onUnplugged
-- the version which was adopted as a de facto eulogy for Cobain by fans -- this fight is over before it even starts. The story of the recording of "Something, " with Butch Vig running around Sound City turning off every phone, fan and electrical device to get the sound just right is a better story in the beginning, but the final result is middling and, really, there could be no better end than "All Apologies." It still holds up as one of the best closing tracks on any album ever and no song makes me wish I was a college freshman more (or at all, really) than "All Apologies" does. Now, to dig out my old, green cardigan.
Advantage: In Utero
P.S. Don't think I forgot about "Endless, Nameless," the 13th and hidden track on Nevermind. There was nothing to stack it up against, so it will have play against the overall aesthetic of both albums combined. Unfair rules? Maybe, but them's the breaks. While it would fit better on In Utero and has always seemed out of place on Nevermind, much like "Tourette's," it seems like something that just should have been left alone altogether. It was fun later, after reading Michael Azerrad's Come As You Are, to listen for the sound of Cobain's guitar breaking on the sound board at about the 19:30 mark on the track but its title simply described what it was and ultimately it's annoying. In retrospect, it's a perfect metaphor for the "whatever" '90s but it doesn't help Nevermind at all. Somehow, though, it is better than "Tourette's" and would have made In Utero slightly more cohesive album toward the end, so I'm declaring it a draw.
Winner: Nevermind. I'm surprised it happened like this, to be honest. I have for years declared that In Utero was the better recording, but for all my dissecting and re-examining of each album, I have never listened to them back-to-back, track-by-track. Nevermind, while imperfect, is rightly deserving of its place in history. While I have always declared In Utero a superior album, its highs are higher but its flaws are deeper and more unforgivable. It was tough for me to admit this, but Nevermind is indeed a better album overall. I stand forever corrected.
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