Nirvana – In Utero (20th Anniversary Edition) review

Released September 2013. Review published 16th September 2013.

One of the most interesting artefacts included in the glossy insert which accompanies this record is a reproduced letter from Steve Albini sent to the three members of Nirvana on the subject of producing In Utero, a task for which – depending on who you want to believe – he was always destined to undertake.

During its four pages the famously prickly autodidact invites the band to record at Minnesota’s isolated Pachyderm Studios, recommends that the recording process be concluded fast and happily waives any notion of taking a share in the eventual royalties (A decision which was to cost him approximately $400,000). Audiophiles may also get off on some of the suggested mechanics he types about, but the killer lines are on the first page, as he reveals he will only commit to the project on the condition that there’s “No interference from the front office bullet heads”, further cautioning that if together they were merely being “Temporarily indulged by the record company…only to have them yank the chain..then you’re in for a bummer and I want no part in it”.

The front office bullet heads were probably very uncomfortable with Albini having anything to do with their unexpected Radio Friendly Unit Shifters, a man who had titled Big Black’s final release Songs About Fucking before going on to form a successor outfit named with typically pugnacious disregard for taste after the Japanese comic character Rapeman. The augurs were predictably disastrous, not only in the context of the group’s fractious relationship with their increasingly pessimistic label bosses, but also because In Utero’s apparent meta-design was to bury the Nirvana brand so deep in angst and recriminations that it would suffocate under the weight of everyone’s collapsed expectations. Albini was astutely cautious yes,  but take gig he did, the results as history tells us being arguably one of the high watermarks of counter cultural expression in the American nineties.

(Digression). I have a confession to make. Until recently I’d never listened to In Utero in sequence, or ever owned a copy of it. Of course I had Nevermind, typical of a generation who otherwise struggled to find a way to reject the consumerist advance into our lives, fascinated by it’s power and slacker nihilism. To my ears though it had essentially been a pop album; a raucous, anarchic tour de force for the passive aggressives amongst us, but a pop record all the same. So when its more confrontational successor came out – and these were the days when you generally had to buy music, or tape someone else’s – I just didn’t bother. It wasn’t really ever a conscious decision, more that it felt like the Rubicon had been crossed somewhere, that the listener was somehow being asked to be complicit with the fuck you plan Cobain was using to dig himself out of the famechasm he’d fallen into. Typically nineties, I just let the whole thing go by me.

Anyway. Leaving aside the obvious ethical dichotomy of re-releasing an album which was the very deliberate full stop of a man in retreat from the vagaries of making music just to sell it, if any body of work deserves to re-assessed with the benefit of two decades of hindsight in the rear view mirror, however begrudgingly you’d say this was it.

Just navigating this version however is a journey for the committed. It’s probably easiest to be succinct about the live disc, recorded in Seattle in late 1993. Even after decades of exposure to the trio’s performance work you’re still once again left to marvel at the precision and targeted ferocity they were capable of deploying on any given night. These after all were their rules: as if to emphasise that Nevermind was just another album they’d made, the ubiquitous Smells Like Teen Spirit is missing, and instead the finale is the shapeless, adrenalin sapping thirteen minutes of Endless, Nameless.

Flipping back, the original album is augmented with a sprinkling of b-sides and the unaffiliated I Hate Myself And Want To Die, but the main event is the Albini-Scott Litt duel, with the bone of contention the latter’s supposed attempts to prettify Heart Shaped Box and Rape Me to help blunt the inevitable fanshock. On listening Abini’s unreleased versions will be a crushing disappointment to those who perceived that former REM man Litt had turned a sows ear into a silk purse – they fail to be more sonically challenging and in fact overlaid they’re almost indistinguishable. The latter’s influence is slightly more evident on Pennyroyal Tea, toning down some of the originals bummed-out abrasiveness, but any suggestions of neutering are objectively just decades old news.

If that argument should be consigned to the dumper of who gives a fud, this year’s model revolves around the 2013 mix, or more specifically who the perpetrator is. The press pack is suitably unforthcoming on the subject, but the smart money is on Albini himself making a return to the boards, perhaps in an effort to finally resolve the dispute he had with band members on the merits of his first version.

Whoever was in charge there are clearly few new levers to pull, given the almost primal modus operandi of the original process. What the makeunder does reveal is a most obviously forgotten quality, that it was an alternative, underground record made by an overground band. Sure, there’s still the scalding, Big Black-esque fist-in-the-face of Scentless Apprentice – here whittled into something even more visceral – and the hardcore weirdness of Tourette’s making a case for the bipolar misfit syndrome of the lead protagonist we’re all familiar with. But Cobain and co. were no longer lone voices at this point; let’s not forget that America’s left bank, courtesy of Fugazi, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. to name but a few, was already in full cry by this point and making challenging music of their own, sounding no more dystopian in fact than most of what lies on here.

Its also worth reflecting on the natural gift he had for song writing in the grand tradition, and that beneath their slightly contrived ugliness of the aforementioned Rape Me, Heart Shaped Box and heroin paean Dumb are all amongst his richly evocative finest works. In a sense the first two deserved better clarity and more sympathetic treatment, despite the controversy the patch up process generated. Obsessives will probably also skip forward to Marigold, Dave Grohl’s first recorded solo effort dating back to 1990 which in itself is a remarkably gentle premonition and then on quickly to the pair of non album extras Forgotten Tune and Jam, both of which are jagged, punked out instrumentals that don’t add much beyond what we already knew.

Looked at from a purely commercial point of view, there’s a definite sense here of providing the completist with nothing to take umbrage with; as re-issues go, this is one of the more encyclopedic. As an excercise in rendering down existence into endless confrontation with the self, it’s only peer was The Manic Street Preacher’s The Holy Bible, which is if anything a more lacerating set of essays in despair, the self-destructive therapy of Richey Edwards bleak obsessiveness. The end results for both men were of course the same; In Utero is still just a record of course, one that can’t outweigh the loss of a man’s life. But it’s nakedness and uncomfortable honesty mean that whatever treatments are applied to the superficial clay of it’s exterior the creator’s lonely, grand finale vision will remain timeless.


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