This month marks the 20th anniversary of the release of In Utero, Nirvana‘s third and final studio album. Inevitably, therefore, this month also sees the release of a deluxe reissue, one that includes all manner of goodies that I’m too lazy to cut and paste from a recent Nirvana marketing email, let alone type out.*
I have mixed feelings towards the (relatively) recent phenomenon of deluxe reissues of classic albums. At the most basic level, record labels are aiming through them to claw back some of the lost revenue and reduced profit margins of recent years caused by the explosion of easily available digital musical content on the web. Quite apart from ‘deluxe’ being a smug, ungainly word, redolent of 70s prawn cocktail sophistication and ‘positional goods’ one-upmanship, the concept is arguably more about record label economics than about music as artistic expression. Done badly, the deluxe reissue is little more than an upgraded exploitation of backlist, with demos and alternate takes of album tracks tacked on the end that were never intended to see the light of day and are of interest to only completist fans and the band’s closest relatives (and the latter possibly only out of politeness), and an unnecessary remastering of the original mix that does little more than compress the sound and make it louder.
However, if you dig out the sandalwood oil burner to mask the smell of corporate snouts at the trough (please forgive what must be a mixed metaphor), they can provide an opportunity to re-release now-obscure B-sides, air songs that just missed the cut for whatever reason, or provide audio and/or video recordings of classic gigs. It can also, with care, provide in the sleeve notes more information on the album’s context and genesis – all the more so if the album concerned is one that perhaps didn’t receive its full credit at the time and is due a reappraisal. The recent reissue of Mad Season’s Above is a good example of all this.
Ultimately, it probably comes down to how big a fan you are of whichever band is concerned as to whether you see the deluxe reissue box set as value for money or not.** Either way, they’re at least one step up from the contractual greatest hits package, complete with extra new track specially recorded for the occasion and unavailable elsewhere (usually with good reason).
Off the soapbox and back to In Utero… I’ve always had a soft spot for it. Although Nirvana’s last studio album, it wasn’t of course their last album, which would turn out to be MTV Unplugged in New York. The latter is a wonderful album, and a fitting last recording by Cobain. It captures a vintage performance by the band and – in part due to the song selection and the quantity of unexpected covers in the set – includes several magical moments, not least Cobain’s anguished existential howl at the end of Leadbelly’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’.
Unplugged is also considerably more accessible than In Utero, and as a consequence the latter has perhaps been overshadowed by it. In Utero is a difficult listen – deliberately so – but a rewarding one. The band had never been happy with the final mixes of Nevermind, which they felt were too glossy, a bit ‘metal’ even, and not truly representative of where the band came from musically. So, when the under-pressure band returned to the studio in February 1993 to record an eagerly anticipated follow up, they wanted to create something more challenging and less immediate, and if it pissed off the record label, all the better.
With the help of producer Steve Albini, In Utero is a much drier affair: compressed, caustic guitars over a taut rhythm section, Dave Grohl’s pummelling drumming style in contrast to Krist Novoselic’s naturally swinging bass lines. Cobain’s dry, acidulous, often sarcastic sense of humour also comes to the fore (not least in the opening lines of first song ‘Serve the Servants’), alongside his many darker moments (not many MTV heavy rotation singles have included the lines “Throw down your umbilical noose / So I can crawl inside”, let alone the striking visual imagery that Cobain created to accompany the song). Cobain almost can’t help but write catchy melodies, hard as he tries to hide them in atonal or dissonant chord progressions, and this allows this tense, focused, at times bristling and always sensitive, album to maintain a consistency of performance and integrity where in others’ hands it may have faltered and become somewhat monochrome.
A couple of recent interviews that are worth a read: Grohl reflecting on the making of In Utero with David Fricke of the Rolling Stone, and Anton Corbijn on working with Cobain and directing the video for ‘Heart-Shaped Box’.
One of the most interesting, and unanswerable, questions is, what would have come next? It’s quite possible that Nirvana had more or less run its course: having found the pressures surrounding Nirvana so intense, Cobain was reportedly increasingly interested in pursuing other musical projects, most notably with Michael Stipe of REM; he was also unhappy with Grohl’s drumming, considering other options that included his long-term friend Dale Crover of the Melvins; whilst Grohl himself felt undervalued in the band and was busily working on his own demos, which would later become the Foo Fighter‘s first, eponymous album. Sadly, we’ll never know.
*As with pre-digital singles, there is never a single version of the reissue: available are the ‘super deluxe box set’, the ‘deluxe edition’, and the plain old boring single CD. Cobain would be proud of the range of options.
**He types whilst looking at his guilty pleasure Pearl Jam 1990-92 and 1993-95 box sets.