Two years ago, when I finalized my 100 favorite albums list, Nirvana’s Nevermind weighed in at #95, which is pretty low for a Millennial who has continuously devoured all things alternative rock since the age of eleven. But by the time I bought Nevermind in high school, I already was familiar with more than half of the album’s tracks, since they appeared (with varying degrees of frequency) on the radio all the time. Until I bought and listened to the new 20th anniversary reissue of In Utero last weekend, I had never realized why Nevermind never came close to appearing towards the top of my favorite albums list and why, say, Pearl Jam‘s Ten did. After all, I had also heard the singles from Ten a lot, too, before buying it, but somehow that album has taken on a life through repeat listens that Nevermind never quite has.
The problem with Nevermind is, everything is right there on the surface, which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, if you are coming into the album cold. In my case, though, I hear Nevermind and think it’s really good… but that there isn’t really much new to uncover each time through, since most of it was never unfamiliar territory to begin with. (I was hoping this would change when I bought the 20th anniversary reissue of Nevermind a couple of years ago, but the remaster was horrible and I just couldn’t get into it.) In Utero and I, though, have a rather strange history. Until last weekend, I never bought it — I originally ripped a library copy onto my computer and it sat there for quite a while. (I’m pretty sure we’re talking years.) The first time I can remember actually sitting down and listening to the entire album — as opposed to just the singles — was right after my sophomore year of college, when I was taking a train home to Maryland from Florida.
It was the first time my parents had driven down to pick me up and put all of my things in the car — I had acquired some stuff (including a guitar) that wasn’t particularly flyable — and we had stopped at Disney World for a couple days before taking the “auto train” up the east coast to Virginia. Well, I couldn’t sleep on that damn train. I tried for hours, but the ride was far from smooth and not exactly quiet, either. I eventually gave up and pulled out my laptop and did what I have done so often over the years: play a game of Civilization while listening to an album. Civilization, if you are unfamiliar with the series, is a strategy game — read: turning the game’s (incidentally great) music off and playing your own doesn’t affect gameplay at all — that has had several iterations over the past couple of decades, but on this particular occasion, I was playing Civ IV. And, for whatever reason, I listened to In Utero. I wasn’t particularly impressed, since to the uninitiated, In Utero is a few sleek singles and a hell of a lot of noise. In fact, as an LP, it’s pretty much impenetrable at first, since it comes across as so uneven.
So that was phase one of my relationship with In Utero: you know, the “who would listen to all this noise?” stance. And I’m not sure that position wavered much for a few years after that. It wasn’t until I started doing some research on the album that I began to view the album in a much different light — I realized that the legacy of the album is as troubled as the band’s (and Kurt Cobain‘s). Not that the quality of In Utero is marred in some way, but rather that it has staked a unique position in the pop music canon: the suicide of Kurt Cobain — the destruction of a generational icon — and this particular album are inextricably linked. It’s impossible to not feel the weight of that kind of baggage when I listen to In Utero.
And let’s be honest, this couldn’t have been an easy listen even before Cobain offed himself — the inviting polish of Nevermind (produced by Butch Vig and mixed by Andy Wallace) was scrubbed away in favor of the dry, ragged sound provided by indie rock producer Steve Albini, and beneath that, listeners could mostly expect outbursts of wild, barely controlled id, both musically and lyrically — but at least the baggage wasn’t there. In Utero, when it was released, was intended as an actual “alternative” album: it was an exit strategy, a means for Nirvana to leave the mainstream, at least sonically. Obviously, they were expecting some fans to buy it no matter what — not only did Nirvana achieve success beyond their wildest expectations with Nevermind, but they also transformed the entire industry and empowered a whole generation of ascending youngsters across the globe. And they wanted to step back from all of that somewhat (or, if the band is to be believed, a lot), which is understandable.
Whether that was actually possible is a matter of endless debate, though of course, in pop culture, all phenomenons come to an end sooner or later, and In Utero was Nirvana’s attempt to at least end their own part in the grunge phenomenon. Even though the album is pretty difficult listening, In Utero opened at number one here in the US, largely due to the sheer momentum behind the band and the response to the first single, “Heart-Shaped Box,” which may be Nirvana’s best song. And then, just before DGC/Geffen was set to release the album’s third single, “Pennyroyal Tea,” Cobain was found dead, halting any forward promotional progress for In Utero. (Ironically though, sales picked up in the wake Cobain’s death.) Ever since, it has been impossible to separate Cobain’s near-continuous rampage of noise on In Utero with his subsequent death, which makes the album singularly triumphant or devastating, depending on your point of view. Is it Cobain’s last hurrah, a triumph of the will in the face of compromise, or an embittered, resigned blaze of glory that finally led him out of the door of life?
A couple of years ago, I was convinced it was the latter, but after listening to the 20th anniversary reissue, I was stunned to find myself completely feeling like it was the former. And I had come around to that point of view before I had even gotten through to the extra tracks; during my listen through the newly remastered album (which, thankfully, isn’t hyper-compressed this time), I was pulled into the album like never before. I actually don’t think the remaster really had anything to do with it; I think it had more to do with the fact that, for the first time ever, In Utero was actually being celebrated. I stopped thinking of the album as being sad, and found the album to be, underneath all the rugged rage and (at times) searing noise, to be just plain fun, not to mention great. Before there was always a degree of enduring it in order to feel rewarded, or something like that, but the melodies in these songs are seriously incredible, which I never thought I’d say.
In the interest of full disclosure though, the band did compromise on the final sound of In Utero, if you ask producer Steve Albini, who has to be the biggest blowhard on the planet. Seriously, read anything on him and tell me with a straight face that his rigid, holier-than-thou Protestant Punk Ethic (okay, that’s just something I made up) isn’t the most irritating thing you have ever come across. Yes, the band brought in R.E.M. producer Scott Litt to remix “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies” (some smaller, album-wide adjustments to the bass and vocals were made, as well), but that’s because they weren’t completely satisfied with how Albini’s mixes sounded. (Now that I have listened to the original Albini mixes for those two songs on the 20th anniversary edition of the album, I have to agree with the band’s judgment.)
It wasn’t a matter of them capitulating to the record label’s demands for a more commercially viable album, but it’s still hard not to feel for Albini. He mixed the album for them and then the band came back to him and basically said, “This doesn’t sound right,” which kind of sucks if you’re a purist like Albini and you believe things should be done a certain way (i.e., the way you just did them). That may mean the final version of In Utero isn’t as extreme a record as, say, PJ Harvey‘s Rid of Me, which Albini recorded in the same studio as In Utero a few months earlier, but so be it. This damn album took long enough for me to warm up to, and let’s be honest: if In Utero were any more cold-blooded, there would be no life in it at all. It’s somewhat ironic, to say the least, that Cobain sensed the “lack of life” flaw in Albini’s original version, telling Circus in 1993:
The first time I played it at home, I knew there was something wrong. The whole first week I wasn’t really interested in listening to it at all, and that usually doesn’t happen. I got no emotion from it, I was just numb.
The more I listen to In Utero now, the less I view it as some kind of capsule of a tortured superstar’s self-destruction, which seems to be its legacy. And now that this super deluxe edition exists, it’s even more evident how much life still existed in this band, from a certain point of view. Cobain‘s assorted ailments — bipolar disorder, a chronic stomach illness, and heroin addiction, to name a few — eventually took their toll, ending all possibilities for Nirvana’s continued existence, but his knack for songwriting was extraordinary, especially given his limited technical abilities on the guitar, and that becomes abundantly clear when listening through the box set. The problem I had with the Nevermind super deluxe edition is that everything on it was either recorded pre-zeitgeist (of course, how could it not be?) or, as in the case of the included concert, right as the phenomenon was achieving liftoff.
Which isn’t to say that period of Nirvana’s career is uninteresting, but In Utero is where events get downright fascinating, since the phenomenon was already underway and the end was also near at the same time. Couple that with all the mixing variations and the fact that most of the tracks require the listener to pull away a lot of layers of noise to really appreciate the music, and you have not only the richest and most interesting Nirvana album, but also by far my favorite. (Seriously, after immersing myself in In Utero for an entire week, I went back and listened to Nevermind, and it sounds like it’s made out of plastic, which, given its status as a life-altering album, is quite curious. Still one of my favorites though. No need to worry about that.)