Forget the underwhelming posthumous single “You Know You’re Right”: as the closing track on In Utero, “All Apologies” is the real final Nirvana song. Based around a sublime droning riff in drop-D tuning, “All Apologies” forgoes tumult and aggression for calm and resignation. You can practically hear the band fade into the ether in the song’s coda as all the instruments gradually drop away until all that is left is weary voices harmonizing the words “All in all is all we all are” amidst the feedback remnants.
The fourth single from Nevermind is its most metallic, lurching through gnarly chord changes that are augmented by Dave Grohl’s explosive drum fills. When Cobain says “Spring is here again”, the song begins to brighten, soon unveiling a sing-along chorus that pointedly calls out people who join in but “knows not what it means”. A song that achieved added resonance once every macho thick-necked bro began buying Nirvana records, it’s the little touches in the track (Krist Novoselic’s tasteful bassline, Grohl’s strained background harmonies) that validate “In Bloom’s” call to dig a little beneath the surface on a musical level.
Listening to this song, the immediate question is: is it about heroin? Whether it’s about love as a drug or the love of drugs, “Aneurysm” is a powerful encapsulation of all-consuming emotional sickness. Reckless yet controlled, “Aneurysm” moves between extremes of restraint and abandon in the verses as it tries to hold its baser impulses in check, only to give in to temptation during the grinding choruses. Two studio versions of “Aneurysm” were released: its incarnation on the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” single is rougher and ends with one of Cobain’s most memorable screams, but the take included on the 1992 rarities compilation Incesticide hits hardest.
In the months prior to its September 1993 release, rumors circulated that In Utero was Nirvana’s career killer, a calculated anti-Nevermind full of noisy, unlistenable music. The lead single “Heart-Shaped Box” put all concerns to rest. Yes, the rough edges of producer Steve Albini’s production are still discernible through Scott Litt’s mix, and Cobain does slip in a concise anti-solo halfway through, but this remains another verse-chorus-verse Nirvana classic, through and through (those abrasive elements do give the track an fascinatingly unnerving edge, though). It’s yet another love song rife with bizarre medical imagery, and its combination of inventive lyrics and one of Cobain’s best riffs means that perplexed rock radio listeners the world over will be forever exposed to the line “Broken hymen of your highness I’m left black” in between fist-pumping fantasies by AC/DC and Nickelback.
Put aside Cobain’s dismissal of the song’s merits following its shocking pop mainstream penetration (you’d hate it too if everyone demanded you play it at every show). Ignore the inaccurate comparisons between this song’s riff and that from Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” (they don’t even use the same chord progression). And get over the fact that this is the most overly-recognizable rock song from the last 20 years. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” deserves its hallowed place in the canon of popular music because it’s got great hooks, fantastic dynamics, and a two-bar riff so infectious no one was able to ignore alternative rock ever again. From the first chord scratch to Cobain’s very last “a denial”, it’s the definitive encapsulation of teen angst: often duplicated, yet to be surpassed. And let’s not forget one final fact: no matter the historical and cultural weight we can justifiably affix to it, a large part of the appeal of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is that it absolutely, unequivocally, undeniably rocks.