Nirvana's stark brilliance is laid bare on 'In Utero' anniversary edition
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
“I think the very best thing you could do at this point is exactly what you are talking about doing: bang a record out in a couple of days, with high quality but minimal ‘production’ and no interference from the front office bulletheads. If that is indeed what you want to do, I would love to be involved.”
Steve Albini’s words capture the crossroads Nirvana faced at the end of 1992. They were due to record their third album after the unfathomable success of Nevermind, and they were being pulled in myriad directions. DGC wanted a big production that duplicated its success. MTV wanted something to sell. The tastemakers and critics wanted voice-of-a-generation type songs that could properly capture the anguish of the recently dubbed Generation X. But, by all accounts, Nirvana just wanted to make a record, and Albini, who would lead the recording, understood that.
The record they made, In Utero, landed as an abrasive statement towards critics, industrialists, fans and anyone else who bothered to listen. Not long after, it would stand as the band’s swan song following Kurt Cobain’s suicide, parsed through for signals and signs of looming doom. But what what always seemed lost under all this surface noise, at least to the general listening public, was just how strong the material was here.
It wasn’t lost on everyone, of course, and the stature and appreciation of In Utero has grown over time. Now, 20 years later, this 20th Anniversary Edition box set has been curated, collecting a number of alternate visions of the record and ephemera, including Albini’s full letter to the band before being chosen as producer. And the results are stunning.
The proper remastered album is an immediate upgrade, right from the extra churning guitar twitches (and someone clearing his throat during the solo) of “Serve the Servants” through the drum clarity and squealing strings in “All Apologies.” Extra voices, once buried in the mix, appear on “Milk It” and “tourette’s,” while other flourishes peek in throughout. In interviews and press leading up to this, Albini sounded excited about the fact that this presentation of the album would bring listeners as close to what the band had heard on the mixing desk in 1993 as possible, with the 45 rpm vinyl release promising even greater clarity.
The added depth only helps the record, of course. And accompanying the 12-track program are the b-sides that graced the singles, along with the track “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip,” which was present on some of the earliest U.S. pressings (being 11 at the time, I missed out on that one). But Dave Grohl’s pre-Foo Fighters “Marigold” gets another shot at the spotlight here, and some tracks that made it out via collections and later the band’s own With the Lights Out box set, like “I Hate Myself and Want to Die” and “Sappy,” get the remastering and remix treatment to bring them up to sonic speed with the rest.
Most interesting, though, are the alternate mixes at the end of the first disc. The folks in charge of Nirvana at Geffen were, famously, uneasy about the band working with Albini, and fears about the follow-up not reproducing the success of the smash eventually resulted in the band choosing to remix some songs with Scott Litt, who had worked extensively with R.E.M. Litt retooled “Heart-Shaped Box,” “All Apologies” and “Pennyroyal Tea” as possible singles, and the band eventually went with his first two, leaving “Pennyroyal Tea” untouched on the final record.
Albini’s original touch on “Heart-Shaped Box” is notable, with heavier, more defined drums and a guitar break that’s far more overdriven, which gives it a meaner feel as it slides back into the bridge back to the verse. Meanwhile, Litt took a stab at “Pennyroyal Tea,” and his work in cleaning up the distorted guitars is apparent and clearly would’ve sounded more at home on rock radio in the early ’90s. But the band opted for the nastier tone, and this is a glimpse at what the band was going through to appease the higher-ups at Geffen. Neither song is too different than what saw the light of day, the band bending on “Heart-Shaped Box” but holding firm on “Pennyroyal Tea.”
But Albini’s “All Apologies” is drastically different. Immediately, this one is louder and hairier, with the guitars turned way up into the mix. But the treatment of the cellos is what really gives this version a frightening context; they sound almost demented as they ape Cobain’s voice as he sings, “Choking on the ashes of her enemy.” From there, the guitars are wild, the drums bring a boom and the all the background noise has much more presence, leading to all this bubbling and bursting and fizzing and, eventually, dying as the song (and the original conclusion of the album) comes to rest. It was swapped out for Litt’s more universally pleasing mix, but it would’ve been a thrilling way to end the album. As it stands, it’s finally here, and it closes disc one with a fury.
That’s a bit of the history of what could have been. In addition to the original record, the b-sides and those discarded mixes, Albini worked with the remaining band members to revisit and remix the album, presenting an alternate history of In Utero, complete with swapped guitar solos, new edits and, in some cases, songs that come out the other end feeling almost totally new.
There are a number of bits and movements where the changes will be most noticeable to the hardcore fan who has lived with this album for the past 20 years, but then, this box set is clearly aiming for them, anyway. “Very Ape” has the ringing guitar that came in after the opening riff on the original album right up front, pushing the riff to the side so that this squeal is now the star. On “Dumb,” the cello is almost erased in spots, yet raised in others and the feel is changed enough that the song becomes much creepier than it already was.
This practice also allows for a different view of the album. Sometimes, like on “Rape Me,” the vocals have a clarity where it almost feels as though the listener is in the booth with Cobain as he’s screaming, especially in the song’s conclusion. Different or buried guitar solos bubble up, as on “Serve the Servants,” and just about everywhere, Grohl’s drums come through with a renewed fury.
There aren’t many spots where the running time of the songs differs by more than a couple of seconds, but Albini and company weren’t afraid to play with the history. On “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” the noise track throughout is louder but slams shut much sooner — by more than 40 seconds — which works to exaggerate its transition into a version of “tourette’s” that’s even more demented than the original. It’s jarring and, within the world of In Utero, it’s beautiful.
And this record was always a jarring document, as far as the public was concerned. Really, the only spot where In Utero suffered was in the glare of Nevermind and the impossibility of it reaching its status as a cultural milestone. And in the years since its release, it’s been regarded as a finale when it was never intended to be one. Instead, it was and is a portrait of a band coming off an improbable run to the top of the music world’s consciousness. It’s a stark picture, intentionally ruthless and amazingly raw when everything is taken into account.
To help that, now we can see nearly every corner of that moment in history. We have demos and b-sides and alternate mixes and everything in between. Most importantly, we have the original record sounding better than it ever has. If it never reaches the heights of Nevermind in the public eye, it won’t be because the music wasn’t as good. In Utero was a statement, and a dark, brutal one at that. But it was honest, and every angle of its story is now here for our ears.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org