The Best Ever Nirvana Recording ‘In Utero’ Celebrates Its 20th Anniversary

In Utero 20th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition

In Utero has always been an album thought of in the context of conflict, so it only seems right that it would mark its 20th anniversary by being pitted against itself over the very meaning of its existence. What makes this particular deluxe boxset more compelling and intriguing than your typical vault-clearing treasure trove are its competing versions of In Utero, reviving the debate over what In Utero was supposed to sound like versus what it turned out to be.

Indeed, it’s appropriate to revisit In Utero with such tensions in mind, since the questions over its production reflected the opposing forces and contradictory pressures pulling Nirvana and, especially, Kurt Cobain in different directions through the process of making the album, as they mulled going back to their underground, punk-minded roots, while recognizing their responsibilities as the world’s most important band. If the legacy of Cobain the contrarian and iconoclast makes it appear that the former choice was the obvious one for In Utero, especially with producer (er, recording engineer) Steve Albini working on it, the reality is that the decisions they actually made were never so easy and clear cut, as Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic have acknowledged recently: After all, Nirvana lived with Butch Vig’s more smoothed out production for Nevermind despite kvetching about it and ultimately heeded management’s suggestions about tweaking Albini’s uncompromising mix by working with Scott Litt to clean up “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies”.

Rather than a sign of selling out, though, taking such considerations to heart actually speaks to the fraught, tortured integrity that Nirvana maintained by realizing the importance of meeting the expectations of its massive following in some way — the threesome became the servants serving, so to speak. Such context is a reminder that In Utero was born not just out of Cobain’s inner struggles, but also straight into competition — whether real or perceived — with Pearl Jam, who was surpassing Nirvana in popularity, fan affection, and even acclaim at the time of In Utero‘s release, confirmed when that band’s first post-fame LP, the aptly titled Vs., routed In Utero a month later with sales that broke all sorts of records. Yet as the dust settled and In Utero assumed its rightful place in the pantheon of the ’90s best and truly memorable albums, its main rivalry turned intramural, compared and contrasted as it has been to Nevermind to determine which was Nirvana’s quintessential statement. Though there’s hardly a consensus, the common hedge has been to deem Nevermind the more important album, but In Utero the better one.

With a remaster of the album, the original original Albini mixes of singles “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies”, and a 2013 “remix” concocted by Albini, Grohl, and Novoselic included along with b-sides, demos, and an in-their-prime live performance in this deluxe edition, it’s almost as if each of these different takes on In Utero is vying to stake its claim as the definitive version of the watershed work. Whatever version you prefer, though, what can’t be contested or argued over is how Nevermind and In Utero stand as the monumental pillars of the Alternative Nation era, which, like its signature act, was shorter lived than you remember it being because its impact was so far-reaching. If anything, listening to In Utero with the knowledge of what happened later and that this was the last music from Nirvana packs it with an even more visceral and eviscerating punch, amplified by a sense of poignancy and sadness that makes you read into Cobain’s lyrics all the more intently. So while you had the premonition that you might be about to witness a trainwreck around the bend when you heard In Utero in 1993, coming back to the album 20 years later still gives you that pang that you’re rubbernecking, but with the added complication of being more emotionally attached to it because of the tragic outcome everyone knew was coming but no one could stop. It’s an experience that’s something much more sharp than nostalgia, eliciting more complex feelings than the initial adrenaline rush of hearing “Heart-Shaped Box” for the first time, getting head-faked by the “Teen Spirit”-esque intro of “Rape Me”, or wondering how the strings came in on “All Apologies”.

With all that transpired in the brief yet incredibly packed period of time between In Utero‘s September 1993 release and Cobain’s untimely passing in April 1994, you can’t go back to the album as if it weren’t more rife with internal conflict and carrying even weightier psychological baggage than you realized way back when. Indeed, Cobain’s lyrics resonate all the more vividly and powerfully now, the first lines of In Utero as eerily appropriate a way to begin a record as anything you can think of off the top of your head. When you first heard Cobain growl, “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old / Self-appointed judges judge / More than they have sold,” the obvious reading was to understand it as Cobain lashing out against the success that made his happiness impossible, at once embracing and distancing the commercial apparatus that made him famous in spite of himself. But it’s the contradictions and complexities of Cobain’s actions that made him such a fascinating figure: forget trying to know the unknowable of what was going on in his head and realize that the lines aren’t appealing to any lost ideological purity as the source of Cobain’s authority, but rather to a confidence that he knew what appealed to people in ways that the critics and suits didn’t and couldn’t. Of course, there’s a dark, biting humor — perhaps Cobain’s most underrated quality — to “Serve the Servants” that makes it richer and deeper than just a hectoring screed, with the circumstances of what was yet to come adding bitter irony to the lines, since Cobain never sounded boring nor would he ever grow old.

Even though Cobain claimed that his lyrics weren’t necessarily personal, they’ve been perceived as reflections of his psyche regardless of his intentions, living on long after him and carrying meaning beyond his control, as is the case with any great artist. So many turns of phrase that earwormed their way into your consciousness then are now etched in your mind, heavier and more loaded because you know how Cobain’s whole story turned out when he didn’t. The burden with which Cobain sings, “I’m on my time with everyone,” on “Pennyroyal Tea” feels even more unbearable and crippling as a debt unpaid by Nirvana’s fans, while the gravelly refrain of “I miss the comfort in being sad” on “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” now conveys overwhelming despondency that could’ve once been mistaken for longing rage. In that sense, “All Apologies” is an even more sadly apropos ending to In Utero than “Serve the Servants” is as an opener, especially with the 20/20 of hindsight. Indeed, what lyrics could be more haunting — and haunted — than “What else should I be? / All apologies” in the context of how Cobain later took his own life or the way Cobain’s wearied, gruff voice peters out to “All we are is all we are,” the unwanted, imperfectly perfect last words on record of a man resigned to a fate that his deeds showed that he wasn’t sure he wanted or didn’t want.

Perhaps wisely, then, much of the promotion for the In Utero deluxe set by the principals has sidestepped questions about what Cobain was going through and has homed in more on the finer points of the album’s legendary recording sessions and the tumultuous post-production process, though how could who’s missing here not be the elephant in the recording studio. Actually, the most interesting pieces of time-capsule ephemera in the boxset aren’t musical at all, rather a letter from Albini laying out the terms and conditions of his involvement in advance of recording In Utero and the receipts for the materials and labor that went into the making of the album. Considering that your basic mass-produced CD from 1993 still holds up as well as ever, comparing and pondering the different versions offered up here are ultimately academic exercises: Interviews with Novoselic, Grohl, and Albini have been some combination of oral history, hermeneutics, and an advanced-level course on music production, focusing on how to interpret the different mixes that emerge from the minutiae of transferring sound to various kinds of recording media. Of the remastered original, Albini describes in the most technical terms possible how machinery, media, and recording processes available now but not in 1993 were used to create a version of In Utero even better than the real thing, noting in a recent Q&A, “Everything about it was done in the best possible way that we could conceive in order to give people the purest, most accurate, best fidelity listening experience that they could have with that album.”

While it’s interesting to tie up the loose ends of doing a side-by-side taste test with Albini’s original takes on “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies” and the supposedly more radio-friendly Scott Litt versions that ended up being released, what’s most intriguing here is the 2013 remix that Grohl, Novoselic, and Albini worked on together. Taking, of all things, a Doors refurbishing project as an inspiration, Novoselic explains that the rationale behind the new mix was to “[k]ind of open the windows and kind of freshen it up.” In effect, this 2013 mix is less an attempt to give an Autotuned Cobain the hologram treatment for old time’s sake than to engineer a full-on A.I. version of Nirvana, circa 1993, somehow better and more pure than the original. You don’t exactly have to be an audiophile, just someone who’s relatively familiar with In Utero, to notice the basic differences between the 1993 product and 2013 package, or the amount of effort, attention, and care the three put into the latter — even if these fancy boxsets are the industry’s attempt to milk the cash cow one more time, this refreshed version of In Utero definitely comes off like a labor of love for Albini, Grohl, and Novoselic, at least.

While it hardly matters whether you choose the 2013 version over the original, or vice versa, much of the album fares well with the re-interpretation, which mostly builds on what’s already there by sharpening the edges a bit and drawing out some guitar leads, Grohl’s brute-force drumming, and textured backing vocals enough for you to notice. So if Nirvana had mastered loud-soft-loud dynamics back in the day, the 2013 edition basically renews their patent by taking advantage of the studio to make things louder-softer-louder. That’s readily noticeable on “Serve the Servants”, where everything bristles a little more with a careening Cobain guitar solo pushed to the fore near the end, and on “Heart-Shaped Box”, which boasts a crisper crash of guitar-bass-drums and a more vivid vocal mix with more pronounced background singing. All the elements feel like they’re a notch more vibrant on “Rape Me”, too, as Grohl’s bashed-up build-ups snap more and create a greater sense of anticipation for Cobain’s vocals and guitar lines when they arrive on the scene. And even though Cobain’s distinctive guitar interlude on it is muddied up for some unclear reason, it’s the new version of “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” that makes the most out of Nirvana’s trademark moves, as it all but explodes on its instrumental flourishes.

While it’s not surprising that the most aggressive and noise-heavy tracks like “Milk It” and “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” stand out more with the treatment given the 2013 mix, considering Albini’s predilection for a rawer sound, that’s still a welcome development, since it gives those numbers a chance for a more thorough re-evaluation outside the shadow cast by In Utero‘s canonical songs. In particular, “Scentless Apprentice” really soars here, the towering riffs that kick off the song somehow made more vibrant and imposing, pushing to the point of hard rock excess without quite crossing the line. Add to that more bounce in the rhythmic interplay between Grohl and Novoselic, and a greater sense of shape and structure to “Scentless Apprentice” comes through. The same goes for the acerbically titled “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”, which in its new, bolder form doesn’t sound as unfriendly and antagonistic as it once did, as it’s framed in a way here to give its raucous, unruly noise something resembling structure.

On the flipside, though, the new, amped-up remix doesn’t work so well for the pieces that require more subtlety and restraint. On these, one might wonder how much Albini’s editorial decisions with tracks like “Dumb” and “All Apologies” actually took precedence over fidelity to the album’s spirit. “Pennyroyal Tea”, for one, seems more rough-hewn than it originally did, sacrificing, in turn, some of the poignant melancholy of the rise-and-fall, give-and-take dynamic of the song. But it’s Nirvana’s ingenious, out-of-left-field use of cello — remember that strings weren’t exactly commonplace in the heyday of guitar-centric grunge — that suffers the most on the 2013 reimagining: “Dumb” loses some of its introspective elegance, as the bass and drums tumble in too impromptu a way and bury Kera Schaley’s cello parts as collateral damage. Scuffing up “All Apologies” feels like an even bigger travesty here, as its tenuous balance of reliable grunge tropes and tentative orch-pop experimentation gets completely tilted to the former by beefing up the guitars and darkening the cello tones. Whether or not the Scott Litt version that ended up on In Utero tamed Nirvana’s more primal instincts, it brought out something compellingly different out of the band, its nuance highlighting the vulnerability and fragility of Cobain’s songwriting amidst the customary sturm und drang in a truly revelatory way. Here, the track’s unlikely, uncommon beauty gets mucked up, as the mix renders the cello lines too ominous and herky-jerky when you can actually hear them and jumbles them up with the grumbling vocals and prickly, buzzing guitar, jettisoning a good measure of the contrast between grace and raw power that made “All Apologies” stand out.

Perhaps you could argue that the new mix of “All Apologies” might be closer to Cobain’s vision as an artist or what we think it was — and, after all, who would know better than those actually working on this project? — but the story that this revisionist history tells might have been better left alone in uncertain possibility, since the way In Utero ended with “All Apologies” was less about closure than opening up new directions that Nirvana could’ve headed to reinvent itself and rock’n’roll yet again. With its insistence on a harder, louder, rougher aesthetic, the 2013 remix tends to offer one dominant interpretation, one view of In Utero over others, shutting off other options as a result. Yet part of In Utero‘s legacy and significance is precisely what is unknown and unanswerable about where Nirvana and Cobain were going next: While the boxset doesn’t help much in divining the past future of Nirvana — the one hyped-up rarity is the aptly titled “Forgotten Tune”, which sounds more like a Bleach outtake than anything else — there are hints of more diverse approaches that Nirvana was taking. For instance, b-side “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip” has an oddly loosey-goosey, ’90s indie feel à la, of all things, Pavement, while “Marigold” gave Grohl his first starring role, though we do know how his story played out with a well-deserved happy ending. But if there’s anything that’s potentially illuminating to be found by going back to the future with this set, it’s an unassuming 1991 demo of “All Apologies”, which unexpectedly sounds almost like a banjo pickathon, giving you a sense of a band whose music was and could have been a lot more organic than one might’ve imagined.

So despite being what should be the case-closed Nirvana boxset to end all Nirvana boxsets, the deluxe special edition of In Utero still can’t quite slam shut a Pandora’s box full of what-ifs and hypotheticals about the most significant rock band of the last quarter century. If anything, the new deluxe edition is a worthwhile endeavor because it gets us to listen to Nirvana and In Utero more carefully again as we raise those long-standing questions about the band and its music anew. With all the versions provided here, perhaps the best thing for the interested listener to do is mix-and-match his own ultimate In Utero, because the different productions make that a possibility, rather than taking one interpretation as the be-all, end-all perspective. Declaring which mix is better or more accurate is beside the point, because ultimately what’s more important than the differences is what they all have in common: Kurt Cobain’s songwriting and Nirvana’s performance — the essence of In Utero, no matter whatever material form the songs take on. In the conflict over what’s the best version of In Utero, we’ve all won, for once at least.

RATING 10 / 10