Nirvana - In Utero (20th Anniversary Edition)

Perfectly imbalanced, this is Nirvana’s defining album…

Teenage angst paid off well indeed, but come 1993 it was time for something more.

Nirvana had gone from sweaty clubs to headlining major festivals in the blink of an album campaign – the rollercoaster of publicity that takes an age to begin but, once underway with the record in question on shelves, is an all-consuming firestorm of real-life-obliterating otherworldliness. It’s a dream – or a nightmare, depending on your drugs of choice.

‘Nevermind’ made them, but it’s perhaps ‘In Utero’, Nirvana’s third and final studio album, that’s left the most palpable legacy of any of the band’s collections. It’s both reactionary and evolutionary, progressive yet primordial.

It’s a rebirth of sorts for its Seattle-spawned makers, ostensibly unhappy with certain corners of the new audience they’d attracted post-‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and keen to return, to some degree, to the punk spirit of their debut set: 1989’s scrappy, $600-to-record ‘Bleach’. And as anyone who’s been through a birth knows, these things can get messy.

Connecting with DIY-famed engineer Steve Albini – who at the time of recording ‘In Utero’ in early ’93 was laying down the foundations of his own ferociously raw band (still going strong today), Shellac – Nirvana set about capturing a sound more in keeping with their punkish grunge beginnings.

Of course, the story, well known as it is, goes that the band’s label, DGC, wasn’t too impressed by some of the mixes, and subsequently set REM producer Scott Litt to work on polishing up a handful of single-release-worthy cuts.

The final album, released in September ’93, is therefore a slightly confused collection, veering from aggressive riffs to passages of introspection, from rough-edged atmosphere to a glossiness comparable with the Andy Wallace-helmed ‘Nevermind’ mix – something frontman Kurt Cobain would confess to being embarrassed by. 

But it begins truly brilliantly, with three of the best songs Nirvana ever committed to tape. The explosion of discordance that opens ‘Serve The Servants’ stands as one of the best first-track sucker punches out there – and from there the track snakes and slides, guided by Krist Novoselic’s deep bass tones and Dave Grohl’s thunderous drums, like a truly filthy beast.

Cobain’s lyrics are self-disparaging – his first lines being those alluded to earlier, “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old” – but there’s already a playfulness evident, beneath the “such a bore” of press-call chatter regarding the singer’s parents’ “legendary divorce”. The audible cough in the final minute might be intended to convey a first-take spirit, but it can also be read as acknowledging the not-entirely-serious intentions of this curtain-up cut. Or, it’s just a cough.

‘Scentless Apprentice’ increases the heat considerably, Grohl pounding like a man whose life, and that of all his loved ones, depends entirely on the successful demolition of these skins before him. Cobain’s screams of “Go away”, meanwhile, find him at his most apoplectic – but to the extent where they’re almost comedic, especially so given the base sentiment expressed by this complex songwriter. It’s the one track on ‘In Utero’ credited to all three members – just as ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was an album earlier.

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Nirvana, ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ (Director's Cut)

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And then ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ opens the album up for those less familiar with the band’s all-guns-blazing tendencies. Compared to what’s come before, it’s entirely melodic, and its structure clearly corresponds with the title Cobain originally had in mind for ‘In Utero’: ‘Verse Chorus Verse’ (the song of the then-same name, later titled ‘Sappy’, appears amongst this anniversary set’s bonus tracks).

As the ’93 original plays out, the cracks in this LP become apparent readily enough – but these curiously undercooked moments, those that feel incongruous compared to the majority of what’s on offer, still linger long in the memory.

‘Rape Me’ carries controversy in its title, but it’s rudimentary of design; ‘Dumb’, too, does little to stretch its players, Cobain following a simplistic rhyme scheme that even a Gallagher brother might baulk at. The latter is the first track here that presents the ‘acoustic’ Nirvana – but with the power down, and the fury calmed, it’s an exercise of curiously little hookiness that nevertheless burrows its way into the grey matter.

And if that sounds deliberately contradictory, it’s because ‘In Utero’ does that to a (trying to be, putting nostalgia aside) critical mind. This is a love album of sorts – a Love album, if we must – that turns an eye, several times, to tearing everything down and not bothering to start again. It’s a collection obsessed with meeting the demands of the industry that Nirvana were becoming leaders within, but also desperate to appeal to the fans who got into the band early on, when the ‘Blew’ EP found its way into stockings at Christmas 1989. It’s tremendously multifaceted, awesomely confusing, and not a little bit unsure of its own strengths.

And so it’s a nudge-wink title that’s given to one of this album’s strongest, straight-out rackets, ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’ (anything but, of course). From its buzzing guitar to its counted-in drums and the incomparable lift-off of its “What is wrong with me” chorus, it’s a slam-dancer from a band who didn’t wholly want that going on down the front.

Again, they’re saying one thing but asking for something else. It’s a track where Cobain is at his lyrically weakest, a string of non-sequiturs proving graphically effective but conceptually incoherent. But it’s one you go back to, again and again, the bruises getting more beautiful with each pass.

There are the sweeteners: ‘All Apologies’ is an old number brought up to (then) date, dedicated to Cobain’s wife and child, and the (commercially) unreleased third single ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ takes a dark theme, abortion, and dresses it up as a fine, fluid, sing-along-at-home pop-rocker. It was later covered by Manic Street Preachers and Courtney Love’s own band, Hole, and Cobain tackled it entirely solo on Nirvana’s ‘MTV Unplugged In New York’ performance.

For this 20th anniversary collection, B-sides to the ‘In Utero’ singles are given main-disc pride of place. Of these, the Grohl-fronted ‘Marigold’ is the most interesting, a scratchy, laidback affair that telegraphs the future Foo Fighters frontman’s songwriting chops – already developing prior to him joining Nirvana.

A set of 2013 mixes even out the overall sound somewhat, and a clutch of Albini original productions allow for comparison between the Litt mixes and what initially left Minnesota’s Pachyderm Studio. The Albini-only ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ features a more ragged, screeching instrumental middle eight, but the differences are likely of niche appeal only, central structures remaining consistent.

A few ‘Word Of Mouth’ demos are exquisitely raw – the blistering take on ‘Radio Friendly…’, recorded wordless, is a rocket-powered reminder that, however mainstream they became, Nirvana would always be capable of terrifically heavy material.

Other extras include the disgruntled cacophony of ‘I Hate Myself And Want To Die’ – an early title for this album, the song in question released on 1993’s ‘The Beavis And Butt-head Experience’ compilation, beside tracks from Megadeth and Run-D.M.C. – and the aforementioned ‘Sappy’, which originally appeared as a ‘hidden’ bonus number on the ’93 AIDS relief release ‘No Alternative’.

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Nirvana, 'Scentless Apprentice', live at Seattle's Pier 48 (Live and Loud)

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A full set of live tracks from Seattle’s Pier 48, also on DVD, is a neat addition to the package – but when was the last time, in this era of web streaming, you watched a whole music DVD? But maybe this is one to break the barren spell. Alongside the ‘In Utero’ tracks is a spread from the back catalogue, including ‘Sliver’, ‘Blew’ and ‘About A Girl’, and Cobain switches the lyrics of ‘Serve The Servants’ to suggest that he wanted a sister, not a father.

Still hugely influential – just listen to breaking-through acts like Drenge for proof enough of that – and a titillatingly tangled end product, ‘In Utero’ is the defining statement from Nirvana. It’s not as shiny as ‘Nevermind’, nor as raucous as ‘Bleach’; it’s not as sensibly realised as it would have been has DGC had entirely their own way, but nor does it completely kick against Cobain and company’s prior achievements. Imperfectly, it makes absolute sense. It’s as grown up as an album can be when written, mostly, by a man only in his mid-20s, with a new family and every ear in the music industry turned his way. 

Which is to say, it’s not all that grown up, at all. Bored and old he wasn’t, quite, but Cobain was certainly heading towards a new level of songwriting maturity, away from his earlier expressions of commodified rebellion – ‘All Apologies’ alone is indicative enough of this softer, subtler-of-touch approach. Contentment seemed reachable. This is a happier album than cursory listens indicate, one where humour finds its place amongst the horrors, and firm companionship between three great friends just about binds everything together, despite the production hiccups. Cue your own speculation on what might have been.

9/10

Words: Mike Diver

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Nirvana, ‘All Apologies’, for ‘MTV Unplugged In New York’

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Read Clash’s interview with Nirvana guitarist Pat Smear here

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Stream tracks by Nirvana via Deezer, below…

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