For the past two decades, we've essentially been living with two versions of In Utero. The first was officially released Sept. 21, 1993, though its legend was established several months prior. As the intensely anticipated follow-up to the most transformative rock album of the 1990s, Nirvana’s third record was pre-destined to become a battlefield in the heightening clash between indie and corporate culture, as mediated by a band that was philosophically faithful to the former but contractually beholden to the latter.
While Kurt Cobain famously used the liner notes for 1992 rarities compilation Incesticide to call out the jocks, racists, and homophobes in Nirvana’s ever-expanding audience, In Utero promised a more aggressively hands-on process of weeding out the mooks, a concerted effort to realign Nirvana with the artists they actually listened to and away from those they were credited with spawning. And where the album’s title would reflect Cobain’s lyrical yearning for a back-to-the-womb retreat from celebrity scrutiny, it also proved emblematic of the record's messy birth: A by-all-reports harmonious two-week quickie session with recording engineer Steve Albini in a rural Minnesota studio would lead to months of acrimonious exchanges in the press among the band, DGC, and Albini over the purportedly unlistenable nature of the results, requests for cleaner mixes, and cruddy cassette copies leaked to radio that falsely reinforced the label’s misgivings. (The second-guessing circumstances were not that dissimilar to those of the preceding Nevermind-- wherein Butch Vig's original recordings were eventually handed over to Andy Wallace for a platinum-plated finish-- only this time, the outcome had the potential to affect Geffen's share price.)
Upon release, In Utero may have debuted at number one, but initially it was something of a pyrrhic victory: Rather than lead a wave of Jesus Lizard-inspired noise bands to the top of the Billboard charts, In Utero would send millions of Nirvana’s more casual crossover fans scurrying into the warm embrace of Pearl Jam’s record-setting October '93 release Vs., an album that, from a music-biz perspective, was the true blockbuster sequel to Nevermind. In that sense, this first version of In Utero resonates as much today as a symbolic gesture as a collection of 12 unrelentingly visceral rock songs, a how-to manual for any artist at the top of their game-- from Kid A-era Radiohead to Kanye West circa Yeezus-- that would rather use their elevated position to provoke their audience than pander to it.
The second version of In Utero came to be on April 8, 1994, from which point the album would be forever known as the rough draft for rock‘n’roll’s most famous suicide note. In the wake of Cobain’s shotgunned sign-off, it became nigh impossible to hear In Utero in any other context. The infamous album-opening lyric that once dripped with sarcasm-- “Teenage angst has paid off well/ Now I’m bored and old”-- now sounded coldly nihilistic. Where the seismic stomper “Scentless Apprentice” invoked Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume as metaphor for Cobain’s festering disgust with the music press and industry, the song’s grueling shriek of “get awwwwwaaaayyyy” suddenly seemed to be directed at humanity itself. The “Leonard Cohen after-world” fantasy of “Pennyroyal Tea” turned into wish fulfillment; “All Apologies” ceased to be an innocently plaintive pop song and was instead permanently etched into its writer's epitaph.
But with this two-disc 20th-anniversary reissue, we now have a third version of In Utero, and I’m not just referring to the newly remixed iteration of the album. Taken as a whole, the package-- which also includes a remastered version of the original mix, B-sides, outtakes, a slew of embryonic demos, and a cheeky but affecting liner-note essay by comedian/tourmate Bobcat Goldthwait-- puts lie to the notion that In Utero is the soundtrack to a suicide, commercial or otherwise. In charting the songs’ evolution from rough instrumentals to the militaristic blasts of fury heard on the album proper, and through the outré experiments scrapped along the way, we hear a band that was on the cusp of an intriguing new phase.
In a surprisingly conciliatory Musique Plus interview conducted just prior to the album’s release, Cobain stated that In Utero would mark the end of Nirvana as grunge torchbearers and, throughout the record, the band screech and howl like they're skinning themselves alive to expedite their reinvention. But not a lyric goes by on the album where Cobain doesn’t sound conflicted between what he wants to do and what he feels he has to do. The scowling verses of “Serve the Servants” are countered by the chorus’ soothing incantation of the song’s title, as if Cobain had to anesthetize himself in order to answer his audience’s populist demands. You didn’t need to hear the feedback assault of “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” to sense the irony reeking from its title, while the sludgy savagery of “Milk It” deploys Cobain’s fascinations with bodily fluids and birthing to depict a soul being run through the music-industry wringer. Though Cobain claimed in the aforementioned interview that the deliberately bald language of “Rape Me” was his response to misinterpretations of Nirvana’s more ambiguous portraits of sexual/power dynamics (“Polly”, “About a Girl”), the fact that it cops the riff to his most famous song unsubtly directs the titular demand to his hit-seeking minders; when he answers his request by repeating “I’m not the only one,” he seems to be placating himself with the knowledge that he’s not the first punk-rocker caught in a boardroom power play. (And, in light of Cobain’s mounting disdain for the media, I can’t be the only person who’s always heard that line in “All Apologies” as “choking on the ashes of her NME.”)
But this set supports the theory that Cobain didn’t necessarily fear or hate success; his real struggle was achieving it on his own terms. If he really wanted to clear the room, he could’ve made In Utero a lot weirder than it actually turned out to be: among the outtakes here is “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flowing Through the Strip” (which previously surfaced stateside on the barrel-scraping 2004 box set With the Lights Out), an exceedingly odd, stream-of-consciousness ramble that sees Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl adopting the art-damaged inscrutability of then-underground darlings Pavement. Also included are Albini’s supposedly contentious original mixes for In Utero’s two singles, “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies”, which the band eventually handed over to R.E.M. associate Scott Litt to create the spit-shined radio-friendly versions that wound up on the final record. Furthermore, Litt's crisper alternate take of "Penny Royal Tea" (which scrubs off a layer of its Sebadohian scuzz) is featured here as a reinforcement of Nirvana's acquiescent impulses -- it first appeared on a special edition of In Utero created specifically for Wal-Mart that swapped out the title of "Rape Me" for the more big-box-shopper-friendly "Waif Me." (That the differences between the Albini and Litt's mixes are slight speaks to the sort of nitpicking the band were being subjected from without and within.) And in hearing the unvarnished demos of “Scentless Apprentice” and “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”, you get a clearer sense of just how much refinement and fierce discipline they were subjected to before being presented to the public. (In particular, the versions featured in the band's MTV Live and Loud concert from December 1993 -- included in a deluxe four-disc version of this set -- perfectly encapsulate the In Utero ideal of arena-rock at its most anarchic.)
There’s also evidence here to suggest that, in spite of In Utero’s caustic reputation, Nirvana were also keen to explore more sophisticated songcraft. “Sappy” was presumably kept off the In Utero tracklist (and punted over to the No Alternative charity compilation) due to its strong resemblance to Nevermind corkers like “Drain You”, but it still stands as one of Cobain’s purest, most effortless power-pop gestures, while the hushed B-side ballad “Marigold” serves as a test flight for Grohl’s Foo Fighters. Most surprising of all is an early demo of “All Apologies” with an acoustic, countrified shimmer that could practically pass for a CCR golden oldie, transmuting the song's overarching sense of resignation into bright-eyed, fresh-start optimism. Though Nirvana obviously had second thoughts about assuming such a radically chipper guise, that sort of willingness to mess with their essence would carry over to the band’s subsequent touring formation, on which ex-Germs guitarist Pat Smear was added to fill out the sound and the sight of guest cellists was not uncommon.
This exploratory ethos also informs In Utero’s new 2013 mix, overseen by Albini with input from Novoselic, Grohl, and Smear. Strangely enough, the revamp was inspired by another rock icon who died at 27: Novoselic recently revealed the idea came to him after hearing a gussied-up Doors compilation that emphasized certain, previously unnoticed sonic details. Albini, however, has offered a more pragmatic rationale: In Utero’s quick gestation period meant some mixing decisions were made off-the-cuff, resulting in various instrumental parts, alternate guitar solos, and harmony lines being left out. As he told podcaster Vish Khanna, his intention was not to replace the 1993 mix, but to simply take a snapshot of the same songs “from a different angle.” The new version is in fact more textured and nuanced, but not at the expense of the album's bone-dry, brutalizing crunch. Most of its touch-ups are tastefully unobtrusive and illuminating, like the unearthed cello lines creeping behind the chorus of “Serve the Servants” that bring a greater sense of melancholy to the fore, or the screeching strings and slowly decaying fadeout of “All Apologies” that lend a more palpable degree of finality to the proceedings. But there are times where the listening experience is reduced to a parlor game of spotting what’s been added and what’s been omitted: On the upside, “Scentless Apprentice” now sounds like it’s being screamed into a toilet, pushing the song to exciting new levels of gnarliness, but excising the cello parts that are so integral to “Dumb” is, well, kinda dumb.
Fittingly, for an album that starkly contrasts Nirvana's melodic and maniacal extremes, In Utero: 20th Anniversary Edition highlights another inherent contradiction: much like the Beatles’ Let It Be, what was originally intended to be a raw, back-to-basics reaction to past excesses has, ironically, been subjected to so much over-thinking and console-board tinkering (this latest mix constituting its Let It Be… Naked moment of revisionism). But all these mutations reflect the restless, irrepressible nature of these songs, which-- whether in the form of crude demos or modern-day remasters-- still sting and ooze like a flesh wound that refuses to heal. And yet In Utero is the sort of painful shock that, paradoxicalaly, reinstills the empowering sensation of feeling alive. Cobain may have been bored, but he checked out before he grew old; when listening to his final collection of songs, you forget, for a little while, the possibility of either.