The question of whether to write a pie-eyed paean to a record you've loved for two decades or whether to seriously appraise all aspects of its latest commercial incarnation is thrown into hilariously sharp relief by the twentieth anniversary reissue of Nirvana’s third and final studio album, In Utero.
At the risk of writing some sort of godawful review about writing the review, it is a slight pickle. On the one hand In Utero is a truly wonderful record, Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Noveselic’s attempt at annoying their vast post-Nevermind fanbase by creating a work of harrowing unpleasantness - something they failed at gloriously by dint of their own inherent tunefulness.
On the other hand, some arsehole at whatever label it’s being reissued on has cobbled together a ‘super deluxe’ 3CD/1DVD version that has to stand as one of the more pointless commercial artefacts of the modern era. Two decent B-sides (‘Marigold’ and ‘Moist Vagina’) and two long released ‘unreleased’ tracks (‘Sappy’ and ‘I Hate Myself and I Want to Die’) comprise the only worthwhile period rarities. Alongside them are endless alternative mixes of the original songs, including a largely pointless ‘2013’ mix of the whole thing that – certainly on the online stream on which I listened to it - basically sounds identical to the original. You also get the DVD Live and Loud, which is a basic but pretty cool live document of the time, but there's a lot of Nirvana live stuff out there already and it’s available separately anyway. Even if you’re rich as Croesus, you’re a fucking lunatic if you shell out the RRP of £99.99 for the set.
I mean, seriously, blah blah ironic blah blah the commodification of Kurt Cobain’s blah blah art, but let’s put ethics aside – we’re talking about spending £100 on a load of stuff you don’t need, that you can buy the component parts of for a third of the price. It is a deeply cynical object. (0/10).
Fortunately In Utero is being reissued in a variety of formats, the second most expensive of which is a fairly lush triple LP… it’s kind of a rip off at £40, but you know, it’s genuinely nice, and is the least burdened with redundant extras of all releases; then there’s the 'deluxe' digital and CD versions, which are clagged with redundant tracks but fundamentally very worthy of your money.
Any why is that? Simple, really - In Utero has had a remaster from Steve Albini himself, and by thunder it’s a good ‘un. It’s a crisp, clear makeover that gives the record a greater definition and focus without piling on the polish, tightening it but toughening it too. It does make the record a little more accessible, and possibly you might have mixed feelings about that, given In Utero was nominally conceived as an enormous fuck you to all those idiots who only liked Nirvana because they wrote really good songs.
But the truth of the matter is that on those terms, In Utero was a failure at birth. Okay, it did turn off a few million Nevermind buyers, but it would take something far more drastic that that to torpedo the good ship Nirvana. In Utero was thrilling because it was so vivid and diverse, ear-popping as Anton Corbin ‘Heart Shaped Box’ video was eye-popping. It’s a kaleidoscopic, questing set that takes in everything from scabrous sonic aggression (‘Very Ape’, ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’) to wounded singer songerwriter-isms (‘All Apologies’) and tuneful alt. rock (‘Pennyroyal Tea’). Oh, and I guess a bit of grunge (‘Heart Shaped Box’, ‘Serve the Servants’). What makes it so utterly thrilling is the sense that the trio are teetering precariously over the edge, hunted men cornered in an isolated studio, desperately trying to find some sort of catharsis. And yet struggle though they might, they can’t hurl themselves off the precipice – their innate melodicism and pop sensibility is just too much to allow even the heaviest, most unhinged track to emerge without a hook, while Cobain simply has too much to say and too rich a voice to say it in to overdo the screaming. In fact, it’s the Nirvana album with the highest quotient of quiet and acoustic songs, but even the softest song deafening – the way ‘All Apologies’ pitches from wry , cello-drenched verse to that truly upsetting scream of “married! buried!” is surely the ‘heaviest’ moment in the Nirvana canon.
And then there’s Steve Albini’s production/’engineering’ which keeps even the quietest song agonisingly raw – another producer might have filtered out the sense of emotional precariousness in the recordings, but nothing is censored here.
In Utero is the sound of an unstoppable force - the band’s intense desire to fuck up their careers - hitting an immovable object - their unerring inclination towards pop - and sending mad, mournful, raging, funny sparks flying. It is probably the high watermark of what one might call alt. rock, a genuinely uncompromising record that sold 15m copies to a largely accepting audience, a difficult album whose brilliance was essentially recognised. Equally good records paved the way for its success - Songs About Fucking, New Day Rising, Daydream Nation, Surfer Rosa, Dry - but In Utero is to all intents and purposes the end of the cycle, the last ground left for a music that had been bubbling up for 15 years to break. It was the end of grunge, the end of college rock, the end of the ‘80s US underground, the end of punk.
And by the by it was also Kurt Cobain’s final stand, but perhaps the greatest testament to In Utero is that it doesn’t have that Closer or Holy Bible sense of being a suicide note – it feels too vital for that.
Just don't pay £100 for it though, yeah?
10Andrzej Lukowski's Score