The Story Behind Nirvana’s ‘In Utero’ Album Cover

Nirvana’s third and final album, In Utero, endures today as one of rock’s most masterful releases. Brilliantly angsty and beautifully wounded in the Nirvana fashion, the 1993 record made the world beyond the realm of grunge take notice, just as their previously released Nevermind had, but in a different way.

Less polished than the pervious, In Utero found the freshly cemented stars – Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl – return to the abrasive complexities of their debut. It was tortured and uncompromising, raw and wonderful.

According to Charles R. Cross’ 2001 book, Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain, the frontman had originally wanted to name the record I Hate Myself and I Want to Die. “Nothing more than a joke,” the artist said of the idea in a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone, adding it was him simply poking fun at himself. “I’m thought of as this pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time. … And I thought it was a funny title.”

Later fearing that the name would insight lawsuits, his bandmates urged for the title to be changed before its release. In Utero, a phrase meaning “to occur in the uterus” or “before birth,” was eventually decided upon for the album’s name after having been borrowed from a poem written by Cobain’s wife and Hole frontwoman, Courtney Love.

The vehicle for some of the band’s most notable tracks, In Utero gifted us Nirvana classics like “Scentless Apprentice,” “Heart-Shaped Box,” “Pennyroyal Tea,” and “All Apologies.” But its masterpiece track list aside, the album’s cover art is another major draw to the iconic work.

Behind the Album Cover

The winged figure on the cover – canvasing much of the album’s pale, cracked background and acting as the centerpiece of In Utero – is one of the most striking sights in rock album history. It is a jarring image of the human form, spliced to reveal raw organs and bare bones. Flanked with wings like a heavenly seraph and with hands upturned like an effigy of the Virgin Mary, the figure looks part anatomy textbook, part holy figure. It appears, all at once, peaceful and unsettling.

The image is actually that of a Transparent Anatomical Manikin (TAM), its feathery wings superimposed. A TAM is a human-sized, anatomically-correct model, normally of a female body, used for instructional purposes in the medical field. Several replicas of the winged TAMs followed Nirvana while they toured the album, being used as props on stage.

Human anatomy had always been an interest of Cobain’s since childhood when he received the “Visible Man” anatomical model kit. “I guess I secretly want to be a doctor or something,” he said in a 1993 interview. “I’ve always liked anatomy … And since I’ve become a big rockstar and made a bunch of money, I found this place in the Mall of America in Minneapolis that sells nothing but medical stuff.” He recalled often scouring the store for medical charts and anatomical figures similar to the one found on the cover of In Utero. “It was like a dream come true,” he said.

Many of his findings were used for In Utero‘s back cover, an equally striking part of the album’s sleeve. Plastic fetuses, replicated innards, a turtle shell, all were meticulously arranged by Cobain among a scattering of orchids and lilies on his living room floor – an image, again, both peaceful and unsettling at the same time. Perhaps In Utero‘s cover is the perfect introduction for what to expect inside.

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