Kurt Cobain needed a reset. The story has been told many times before, but the extraordinary success of Nirvana‘s sophomore effort and major label debut, Nevermind (1991), had been extremely taxing on the social world, physical energy, and psychological stability of Cobain. In the space of 17 months, from the release of Nevermind in September 1991 to the recording of In Utero in February 1993, Cobain had achieved essentially everything he wanted – critical acclaim, financial security, and family life through his marriage to Courtney Love in February 1992 and the birth of their daughter, Frances Bean, in August 1992.
Yet, this hard-won success proved not enough. The pressures of stardom provided another set of anxieties rather than a balm to those he had grappled with his entire life. As recounted in Charles R. Cross’s excellent biography, Heavier Than Heaven (2001), Cobain faced a litany of challenges that began with childhood in his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington: a broken home defined by an acrimonious divorce; working-class parents with little wealth to spare; a period of informal foster care; and sleeping in hospital emergency rooms when he had nowhere else to go, among other details. Cobain’s claim that he slept under the Young Street Bridge, which inspired the Nevermind song “Something in the Way”, is reflective of his perspective on this period, though this story has since proven to be apocryphal.
Nirvana, which Cobain started in 1987 at the age of 20 with bassist Krist Novoselic, provided a source of focus and stability. Cobain had fortuitously met Buzz Osborne of Melvins while still a teenager, providing inspiration as to what might be possible. Nirvana went through the usual rites of passage for a rock band starting out – lineup changes, frat party gigs, low-budget regional tours, and a fraught relationship with their record label, Sub Pop. Their debut single, “Love Buzz” (1988), was not an original composition but a cover of a 1969 psych-rock tune by the Dutch band Shocking Blue. Epitomizing his ambition, Cobain hand delivered it to KCMU (now KEXP), the University of Washington’s radio station, and then called in anonymously to request it when it wasn’t aired.
Nevermind had high expectations attached to it. By then, Nirvana’s debut album, Bleach (1989), had received significant critical attention. David Grohl joined in 1990, bringing steadiness and a new onslaught to the backbeat. Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon had encouraged Cobain to sign with their major label, DGC Records, and had invited Nirvana to open for Sonic Youth during a European tour in the summer of 1991. The resulting songs on Nevermind were partly inspired by his relationship with Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill. (Grohl also dated Kathleen Hanna at the time.) Cobain wanted to be part of the esteemed K Records crowd of Olympia, but his working-class roots contributed to insecure feelings of unworthiness amidst this elite, college-educated clique.
Nevermind changed all that. Evicted from his apartment in Olympia, Cobain had slept in his car in the weeks just prior to the final mixing of the album in Los Angeles. However, only several weeks later, he could openly mock his own poverty and detrimental high school years in the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with its demented pep rally and mosh pit dancing janitor. The inside joke was that Cobain himself had worked as a janitor. But the insouciant album title said it all. The LP wasn’t a crass bid for commercial success. It was a statement of attitude against such commercial demands.
Yet, the fact that such a recalcitrant attitude was quickly exploited for monetary gain by record labels became a dilemma that Cobain could never fully reconcile. Artistic credibility depended on outsider status and the social criticism that could be levied from such a position. This understanding formed the essential ethos of punk rock. On the other hand, financial security had its benefits, as it did for any artist. To his credit, Cobain took an approach to spreading the wealth, whether by wearing a Daniel Johnston T-shirt or praising the work of lesser-known bands like Shonen Knife, the Vaselines, and the Raincoats. Still, Cobain quickly faced the effects of the Faustian bargain he had struck with the majors.
In Utero was a belated attempt to fix things. The record is both an acknowledgment of the deleterious impact of fame and a real-time endeavor to use that fame to beneficial ends. The decision to bring in Steve Albini (Big Black, Pixies) as the recording engineer, whose indie credentials were unimpeachable, signaled that Nirvana had not abandoned its roots. Indeed, the unvarnished immediacy of the album, announced with Grohl’s emphatic striking of drumsticks on the opening track, “Serve the Servants”, sought to retcon the clean impression given by the metal sheen of Nevermind, attributed to the post-production mixing of Andy Wallace (Slayer, The Cult). With Albini on board, a meeting of minds occurred.
In Utero (30th Anniversary Super Deluxe) restores this crucial moment in Nirvana’s history, albeit with a conspicuous element of cashing in that Cobain would likely have found distasteful. Sigh. It follows in the wake of the 20th-anniversary deluxe edition that came out in 2013. There is naturally some overlap between these two anniversary releases. The main difference is that the 2013 edition had demos as the primary bonus material, whereas this 2023 edition has live recordings as the main draw.
To summarize, In Utero (30th Anniversary Super Deluxe) consists of five CDs, which include the original album, a selection of B-sides and bonus tracks, plus two complete concerts – an appearance in Los Angeles in 1993 and a performance in Seattle, their second to last American show, from 1994. There are also a handful of live recordings from Rome, New York City, and Springfield, Massachusetts. Taken together, there are 72 tracks total, with 53 previously unreleased. There are also assorted ephemera like collectible photos, flyers, et cetera. It’s priced at $179.98. The vinyl box set (eight LPs) is $324.98. In the world of fan service, this approaches Barbra Streisand territory.
That aside, the energy is still amazing on In Utero, a quality emphasized by the live material. Lyrically, Cobain is sharper than ever and, at times, funny as hell. “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old,” Cobain famously deadpans to start the album, which may be too on the nose, but he signals from the start that he was no fool. He knew the stakes. Cobain has the sardonic delivery of someone who stared into the abyss and returned, which he had after an overdose following Nirvana’s appearance on Saturday Night Live in January 1992. From the opening track, his ire is aimed at seemingly everyone: his fans, his vainglorious critics, his estranged dad, and, not least, himself.
These are worthy targets. Taken together, they generate a schizophrenic element of acerbic cynicism versus self-deprecation and subsequent vulnerability – a tension that defines the album amidst all the histrionics of anarchic yelling and unruly feedback. In Utero is an album in conflict with itself, at once declaring a sense of indentured bondage (“Heart-Shaped Box”) to fans, alienated aggrievement with the music industry (“Pennyroyal Tea” heard as “Penny Royalty”), and a sense of failure at living up to audience expectations (“All Apologies”), as well as his own. The ground was always moving beneath Nirvana, and Cobain was at pains to find a position of stability.
The B-sides with this release include “Marigold”, which is noteworthy for being an early Grohl composition, and “Sappy”, a perennial orphan on Nirvana releases, with different versions having appeared on reissues of Bleach, Nevermind, and In Utero. “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip” is a somewhat fascinating studio jam with Cobain’s improvised storytelling lasting for seven and a half minutes. “Moist Vagina” is another elemental rough cut that is stuck at the idea stage with Cobain howling “Marijuana!” in the chorus. The nonchalant “I Hate Myself and Want to Die” is one of two tracks – the second being “Sappy” – recorded during the In Utero sessions but left off the final album.
The live material from Los Angeles in December 1993 and Seattle in January 1994 is exceptional, providing an incomparable sense of what Nirvana was like in person. Their set lists run the gamut across their major releases, with fan favorites at every turn. Covers of David Bowie (“The Man Who Sold the World”) and the Vaselines (“Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam”) are also on offer. Cobain is in full command of his talent. The stage was perhaps the only place he achieved this level of control. Novoselic and especially Grohl also shine through, giving Cobain the unwavering backing he needed. Ultimately, these concert recordings are alternately tight and explosive, wasting little time with banter and maintaining a focused commitment to delivery and momentum. Cobain had an intuitive rapport with his audience.
Yet, listening to these concert recordings, it is hard to tell whether Cobain was having fun. It is clear he had a sense of professionalism, with his live execution wavering little from the studio versions of their songs. He didn’t fuck around when it came to performing. Still, Grohl’s drumming often sounds like he is playing for his life, while Cobain’s delivery is more routine and even reticent at times. The vulnerability and beseeching quality that can be heard on the studio version of In Utero is relatively absent, with tones of frustration and cynicism in their place.
Several album titles were floated during the recording process for In Utero, including Verse Chorus Verse and I Hate Myself and I Want to Die – titles that suggest both boredom and nihilism. This state of contradiction seems to have defined Cobain’s final months. The intentional asceticism of Albini’s recording process stripped things back to reveal these elements. Indeed, Albini’s recollections of the sessions are fascinating to hear, with Cobain having a clear sense of what he wanted the album to sound like. Unusually, Cobain did the vocal tracks in order and essentially in one sitting. However, beyond indie credentialing and recording a big fuck you to their critics, the album remains ambiguous and inconclusive – simultaneously their best album but also amounting to a cataclysmic precipice.
The rest of the story is well-known. With a wife and child, Cobain had become increasingly skittish about touring and live performances – he almost bailed on their MTV Unplugged appearance in November 1993. He later overdosed in Rome in March 1994, resulting in the cancellation of their European tour that year. It is said that cocaine is for partiers and heroin is for introverts. Cobain was an introvert, and he receded more and more into himself and his addiction despite the interventions of his bandmates, his musician friends, his family, and his wife.
The title In Utero suggests the idea of waiting to be born or, in the case of Cobain, the aspiration to be reborn. At the end of his life, Cobain got nearly everything he wanted, but not completely.
At some undetermined point in time, Cobain realized he couldn’t reset everything. He couldn’t reset his childhood. He couldn’t reset his parents’ marriage. He couldn’t reset his band. He couldn’t reset his career. He couldn’t reset his life. And we have been living with his tragic decision in the wake of that recognition ever since.