Serving the servants: Kurt’s caustic last stand, now spread across four discs…
“Teenage angst has paid off well,” gargles Kurt Cobain, welcoming us to Nirvana’s first and last post-fame album. “Now I’m bored and old.” The first thing that strikes you on relistening to In Utero is how wickedly funny it is. The contorted/aborted solos, the deliberately fumbled endings, the fantastically sardonic, self-deprecating chorus of “Heart-Shaped Box” (“Hey! Wait! I’ve got a new complaint!”)… They even almost called it I Hate Myself And Want To Die before deciding that the joke might be lost on the moshing masses. When the song of the same name was dropped from the tracklist for sequencing reasons, the band wryly donated it to a Beavis And Butthead compilation.
Less than a year later, Kurt committed suicide. Clearly, there is a thin line between self-deprecation and self-laceration, and In Utero criss-crosses it several times. The mordant humour is there to offset the guilt: the punk guilt that sent the band scurrying into the arms of sonic scouring pad Steve Albini; the male guilt admirably if clumsily confronted on “Rape Me”; the spousal and parental guilt that manifests itself in the album’s litany of grotesque sex and birth-related imagery. Kurt even feels guilty about feeling guilty – on “Dumb”, the most Nevermind-esque of the songs on In Utero, he yearns to achieve a state of blissful ignorance (which is obviously where the heroin came in handy).
The conflict between desire and responsibility is a recurring theme – one which continued to haunt the band even after the album was recorded. Originally tracked and mixed in just two weeks thanks to Albini’s famous no-frills approach, the producer claims Nirvana left Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls happy with the results. Yet the record label suits were reportedly less than enamoured, and prospective singles “Heart-Shaped Box”, “All Apologies” and the ill-fated “Pennyroyal Tea” were subsequently made-over by REM producer Scott Litt. Elsewhere the touch-ups were minimal, largely concerning the level of Kurt’s vocals. Still, this was enough to spark a petty feud, culminating in a farcical incident at the 1994 Reading Festival when Courtney Love slapped Dave Gedge of the Wedding Present simply for having once recorded with Albini.
Albini says he never had any beef with Nirvana themselves; he is heavily involved with this re-release, and contributes a heartfelt typewritten missive dated November ‘92, in which he sets out his plans for the recording. Yet in recent interviews about the saga, he continues to cast the band as helpless naifs at the mercy of the evil record company machine, a view that is both simplistic and a bit patronising. Kurt, for his part, told Jon Savage that “Albini is a good recording engineer, but terrible at mixing”, and listening to the original versions of “All Apologies” (too claggy) and “Heart-Shaped Box” (sabotaged by a horrible noise after the second chorus) you can see where he’s coming from. Kurt was shrewd enough to know that he had to compete on radio with the rash of slick alt-rock bands who sprung up in Nevermind’s wake, and Litt’s versions did the job. Albini’s new 2013 mixes attempt to find a middle ground, though he still makes a hash of “Heart-Shaped Box”.
The official line on in In Utero is that it’s a raw, uncomfortable document of a band in turmoil and a songwriter on the edge. That’s partly true, but it’s also cathartic, invigorating, full of terrific, scabrous pop songs, and a good laugh to boot. For all the guilt and anxiety, it sounds as if Kurt is successfully facing down his demons, summoning them and eloquently despatching them one by one. Sadly, we now know that wasn’t the case.
EXTRAS: CD1 is topped up with contemporaneous B-sides and compilation tracks, plus Steve Albini’s original mixes of “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies”. CD2 features Albini’s 2013 mix of the album, plus demos and rehearsal tapes, including the much-bootlegged October ‘92 Word Of Mouth jam session and a previously unheard instrumental called “Forgotten Tune” (hint: it’s best kept that way). CD3 contains a 17-track live show, recorded at Pier 13, Seattle in December ‘93. Disc 4 is a DVD of the same gig, originally filmed for MTV; it also features a clutch of intriguing video extras, including a cover of The Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl” live in Munich.