Nirvana’s ‘In Utero’ Turns 20: Is the Box Set Worth $125?
Reissue of band's final studio album is available in several incarnations
In Utero was supposed to be the next Nirvana album instead of the last — the awkward, self-conscious follow-up to the Nevermind juggernaut that would have paved the way for the long career to follow. Instead, it’s the flawed, dark, controversial, at-times brilliant cap on the band’s legacy, a premature finale not as riffy or spiffy as its predecessor but still containing some of Kurt Cobain’s best and most enduring songs.
Nirvana did not leave much behind, particularly in their last year, and the band’s archives already have been plundered so thoroughly that it was hard to imagine what might fill up this 20th anniversary 3-CD/1-DVD boxed set. Even the career-spanning 2004 box With the Lights Out offered up just rough demos of In Utero songs. But as they did with the Nevermind re-release two years back, Universal’s reissue department has dug deep and served up everything worth a sniff, with predictably mixed results.
It’s all collected into the overstuffed “Super Deluxe” edition, which at press time cost around $125 on Amazon: a remastered version of the original album; a new “2013 mix” by producer Steve Albini; assorted B-sides, outtakes, demos and alternate mixes; the staggeringly great Live & Loud set from December 1993 (appearing on both CD and DVD); and a lavish booklet containing reproductions of Cobain’s handwritten lyrics, photos from the sessions, a short reminisce from comedian Bobcat Goldthwait (the tour’s opening act), and a fascinating 1992 four-page fax from Albini laying out his proposal and expectations for the sessions. Many of the contents are available separately as well: a 2-CD “Deluxe Edition” (combining the two versions of the album plus studio outtakes and demos); a three-vinyl LP edition featuring the original mix plus studio outtakes and demos; a single CD of the remastered original album; and the Live & Loud DVD. Which of these multiple incarnations, if any, is the right one for you? Eyes down…
As best these ears can tell from the digital advance release serviced to the press, the remastering of the original album has been thoughtful and meticulous — not revelatory like a Beatles remaster, but enough to appreciate the technological advances that have been made in the past two decades. Likewise, Albini’s new mix isn’t drastically different from the original, but has stronger definition and a boomier bottom end. Equally improved are the three most worthy outtakes spawned during the album’s sessions: the keening “Sappy” (also known as “Verse Chorus Verse,” a refugee from the 1990 Smart Studios demo), the caustic “I Hate Myself and Want to Die,” and Grohl’s lightweight “Marigold,” which is essentially the first-ever Foo Fighters release.
Things get even more interesting with the unveiling of two mixes that caused so much controversy before the album’s release. Long story short: the band’s choice of sonic iconoclast Albini as producer (veteran of the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me and many even noisier albums) caused no small amount of consternation at the time, and reports were rife that the label and/or the band were unhappy with his final mix. Ultimately, R.E.M. co-producer Scott Litt remixed the songs pegged as potential singles, with his mixes of “Heart Shaped Box” and “All Apologies” ultimately appearing on the album.
Albini’s original mixes of those songs, included here, shed some light on what all the fuss was about. While his version of “Heart Shaped Box” got just a little fine-tuning from Litt, “All Apologies” is drastically different. Albini gave the song the Surfer Rosa treatment, burying some of its melodic sweetness and haunting vocal harmonies in a wall of guitars; the difference is as striking as the difference between his production of the Pixies’ “Gigantic” and the one the group re-recorded with Gil Norton a few months later.
The remaining studio tracks will make even completists wonder whether life’s too short for them: the near-unlistenable B-sides “MV” (a.k.a. “Moist Vagina”) and “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip,” and some bottom-scraping instrumental demos and rough run-throughs.
The trump card here is the long-awaited official release of Live & Loud, the legendary MTV New Year’s Eve special aired on the last night of 1993 — you know, the one where Kurt spits at the camera and then grins devilishly. While the 17-song set is missing a half-dozen or so songs that the band played on most nights of its final tour — including, incredibly, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — it’s still essential for even casual fans. Behold Nirvana at the peak of their powers: Kurt snarling, the guitars and bass roaring, Grohl proving that, no matter how many millions love the Foo Fighters, he was put on this earth to play the drums for Nirvana. Even though it amounts to the band’s sixth live album overall, you need it.
The DVD includes 12 additional tracks: some Live & Loud rehearsals, Anton Corbijn’s director’s cut of “Heart Shaped Box,” and several morbidly fascinating selections from the band’s final tour in early 1994. For a three-song set on the French TV show Nulle Part Ailleurs, the bandmembers are comically clad in matching black-and-white outfits with skinny ties. Cobain is reasonably lively, capping the set by putting down his guitar and letting loose a throat-shredding roar before the last verse of “Drain You.” But three weeks later, on the Italian show Tunnel, he’s barely there, turning in an alarmingly listless performance of “Serve the Servants”; the compilers chose not to include the equally lifeless version of “Dumb” performed on the show. The DVD concludes with three serviceable, audience-shot songs from the band’s last-ever concert in Munich, one of which is a jokey cover of the Cars’ “Best Friend’s Girl.” It’s a stilted conclusion, but there was no way around that.
The fax from Albini included in the booklet concludes with a PS: “If a record takes more than a week to make, somebody’s fucking up. Oi!” They ended up taking 10 days to make this, Nirvana’s final studio album. For many fans, there’s a dark cloud over In Utero, and even minus all the baggage, it’s probably few people’s favorite, if only because of what came after. Just how many of the multiple versions of its songs included in this box you need to own is, of course, in the ear of the beholder. Still, the passage of time has made it easier to return to this glorious howl of rage and joy and pain, and appreciate the music for its own sake, and not what’s associated with it.