Nirvana’s 1993 single for their third and final album was a worldwide hit when it first released. Twenty-six years later, it still holds up as an alternative rock masterpiece.
So far this week, we’ve only been looking at new and recent music from contemporary artists. While it’s great to recognize the new music being released, sometimes its nice to take a break to appreciate some of the older songs that have shaped the musical landscape in the past. While yesterday we looked at Devendra Banhart’s “Taking A Page”, today, we’re switching genres and moods entirely.
“Heart-Shaped Box” was released as the first single for Nirvana’s third album, “In Utero”, and topped the charts for U.S. Alternative Songs and Mainstream Rock.
But before we get too into the song itself, let’s first take a look at the album itself.
“In Utero”, the third and final album by Nirvana, was released on September 21, 1993 by DGC Records. After the refined, more mainstream release of their previous album, “Nevermind”, the band wanted to bring out a more raw and unpolished sound for their next album. While the singles later received some additional attention after recording, Nirvana made good on their goal. If “Nevermind” is the paved path to Nirvana from mainstream rock, then “In Utero” is the rocky, dangerous trail.
As an album, “In Utero” was a drastic, hard left turn from the proven sound that was responsible for Nirvana’s rise to fame. Despite this, the album entered the Billboard 200 chart at number one, and has since been certified five times platinum. “In Utero” has been included on numerous top album lists since its release, including the number eight spot on Rolling Stone’s 50 Greatest Grunge Albums.
“Heart-Shaped Box” was the first single released for “In Utero”. Compared to the other singles, “All Apologies” / “Rape Me” and “Pennyroyal Tea”, “Heart-Shaped Box” received the most radio airplay. It reached number one on the Billboard Mainstream rock chart, and its international release saw it reaching the top 10 in several countries, and the top 40 in even more.
The run time of “Heart-Shaped Box” is just under five minutes, almost twice as long as many of the songs found on “Nevermind”. Its composition is fairly simple, written in 4/4 time in the key of A minor. The main chords used throughout the verse and chorus are A5, F5, D5, A, and D7.
The lyrics to “Heart-Shaped Box” are at once confusing and evocative. While there was undoubtedly meaning etched into them by Kurt Cobain, nailing down a single “correct” interpretation becomes a bit harder when you start to examine the lyrics. But let’s see if we can’t parse some meaning from them. Here’s the first verse.
“She eyes me like a Pisces when I am weak
I’ve been locked inside your heart-shaped box for weeks
I’ve been drawn into your magnet tar pit trap
I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black”
At first glance, one might assume that the lyrics allude to Courtney Love. But if you look at the tense changes between the first line and the rest, it’s easy to see this might not be the case. The lyrics are being addressed to someone, who we assume is a different person than the “She” alluded to in the first line. While this could also refer to the same person, it’s less likely due to the grammar.
However, the further we get into the song, the more it seems likely that a large part of it is about Kurt’s relationship with Love.
“Meat-eating orchids forgive no one just yet
Cut myself on angel hair and baby’s breath
Broken hymen of ‘Your Highness’, I’m left black
Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back”
When looked at under a microscope, and with the hindsight of Cobain’s late death, it’s possible that the lyrics contain frustrations the singer-songwriter had with his relationship. Despite the true meaning behind the lyrics, however, “Heart-Shaped Box” remains one of Nirvana’s strongest songs. Because of that, I’m sure plenty others have written much more perceptive analyses of it. So be sure to take everything above with a grain of salt. I wouldn’t be surprised if I missed something, or misinterpreted any lyrics.
That about does it for our discussion today. I hope you enjoyed listening to Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” from their album, “In Utero”. We’ll be back tomorrow with another song to help get you through the week.