After Nirvana’s Nevermind album shook up the pop music landscape in early 1992, it created a very heightened interest in how the band would follow up such a big album. This interest was only heightened more by reports swirling around in the media about Nirvana’s label refusing to release an album because the music on it was “unreleaseable.”
When “Heart-Shaped Box” was released as the lead off single for In Utero, it caused an instant stir. As soon as the song started, it was obvious that this was a song that never would have fit on the Nevermind album due to how different it sounded sonically. But, this different sound was catchy in its own way. Also, the sound of the song seemed to speak to a lot to the young people of the early-to-mid 1990s. I was in my first year of college when “Heart-Shaped Box” was released, and I felt that musically, the song channeled some of the frustrations and uncertainty I was dealing with at that point in my life.
“Heart-Shaped Box” opens with a laid back, yet dark sound. Around forty-five seconds into the song, the intensity suddenly picks up for the chorus. The laid back sound returns for the second verse, but then picks up in intensity again when the chorus kicks in. The laid back sound only returns one final time, when the first verse is repeated. After that, the more intense music returns and remains for the rest of the song. While there are these tempo changes in the song, they work very effectively for what the band was trying to achieve.
Even more notable are the lyrics for “Heart-Shaped Box.” Admittedly, a lot of the lyrics don’t make sense, but the imagery included is really interesting; also, the words just sound cool. In the first verse, you have “she eyes me like a Pisces,” “magnet tar pit trap,” and “eat your cancer when you turn black.” In the second verse, you have: “meat-eating orchids,” “cut myself on angel’s hair and baby’s breath,” and “umbilical noose.” Some people might find these images to be disturbing or disgusting, but they are certainly unique.
When “Heart-Shaped Box” was released in the fall of 1993, it didn’t sound like any other song that was released at that point. It was a very unique song for its time, both musically and lyrically. In many ways, “Heart-Shaped Box” is still a very unique-sounding song. When I first heard the In Utero album, “Heart-Shaped Box” was easily my favorite song on it. As the years have gone by, “Heart-Shaped Box” remains my favorite song from the In Utero album. Not only that, “Heart-Shaped Box” is also one of my favorite Nirvana songs from the band’s entire catalog.