I don’t normally care a lot about these type of X vs Y essays, mainly because there can never be a truly objective, definitive answer. The never-ending Beatles vs Rolling Stones “fight” is a proof of this – both subjects are different and great in their own way and it’s only a matter of which do you individually prefer.
But that’s a question that interests me in our case. I think the answer says a lot about the listener, since ‘Nevermind’ and ‘In Utero’ are somewhat opposite in their ideology, execution and at times, content. The first one is Nirvana’s breakthrough, the one that transformed them from an underground band to a mainstream one overnight. Maybe not all fans will admit this, but ‘Nevermind’ is actually a very commercial record – from the “full” production (compare its sound to the one of Ramones’ or Stooges’ debut, for example) to the fact that every single song is highly catchy and about ¾ of them could’ve been hit singles. This is not a complaint at all, I think it truly was the right move at the time for the band – the album was meant to be accepted by the mainstream in order to make a big impact on the whole musical scene.
And after the impact was made, ‘In Utero’ got released, which I think manages to both retain the things that made ‘Nevermind’ so unique in the first place and give the fans something new. ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and ‘All Apologies’ are to this day two of Nirvana’s most representative songs and still on rotation on ‘classic rock’ radio stations. But at the same time, some parts of the album are so noisy and abrasive that one can’t help but wonder if the band was trying to get away from the mainstream and challenge their fans a bit. And ultimately, that’s what I like about it the most. It feels more unedited, more fucked-up, and more real in a way. I see Kurt as a much more complicated/damaged person and artist than ‘Nevermind’ portrays him to be, and I think ‘In Utero’ offers a better picture of where he was at the time. And in many cases that matters more to me than the strength of individual songs, a contest which the former would probably win.
It’s needless to say that both album are highly important and essential (‘MTV Unplugged’ as well!) for any person with interest in music. Sometimes though, it is a fun exercise to wonder what our favourites are and why is it so. Play along and let me know which you prefer out of the two giants.