Nirvana – 20 years of IN UTERO

In the PR and marketing obsessed world that is the music industry there is one method which has proven again and again to be a winner in the crowd approval and popularity steaks. And that method? Death. Yep, as drastic as it may be, if you want your album to be top of  the pile Sunday cancel that promotional slot on the One Show and give the grim reaper a bell. We’ll never know if that was what was going through Kurt Cobains mind on 5th April 1994 when he pulled down the final curtain on his life. It would be very cynical to suggest he was, offensive even, but there is no arguing that from that moment on Nirvana became far more than a rock band. A legend was born.

As you more than likely know In Utero was Nirvana’s third and final studio album. 20 years on it has now been re-issued, re-mastered and remembered with the usual package of B Sides, demos and live cuts. Whilst at this stage it would be customary to say how “it doesn’t seem to me 20 minutes never mind 20 years” being the tender age of 11 on its release I have to admit that this landmark passed me by. However, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that coming off the back of the ultimate ‘game changer’ in Nevermind, anticipation, expectancy and above all, pressure would have been enormous.

From the off it’s immediately clear that this isn’t going to be a Nevermind 2. Shunning the production gloss of its predecessor, the record almost self consciously wants to give the impression that its recorded live and thus the first sounds you hear are a drummers count-in accompanied by Cobain giving the all clear to start.

It would be tedious to review a 20 year old album from start to finish but humour me for moment.  If track one, side one of any album is used as a manifesto for what is to follow then the use of ‘Serve the Servants’ to kick things off is a masterstroke. On initial hearing it sounds shambolic and messy, but underneath all the noise is pure melody coupled with one of the finest “Dear Listener” lines ever uttered; “Teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old“. Not content with that Cobain goes on to use the song publically right some of the wrongs in his life, setting on the music press (“self appointed judges judge”), the treatment of his wife (“if she floats then she is not a witch like they had thought”) and the rather touchingly reconciling with his old man (“I just want you to know that I don’t hate you anymore”). Can you think of a more personal introduction to album from a multi platinum band?

Following that is the sound of one of the most recognisable drum riffs this side of John Bonham with the peerless Scentless Apprentice, before everyone’s favourite love song to mention cancer, Heart Shaped Box, wraps up an opening trio to rival any album you could name.

Realising it would be foolish to try and better these songs it’s up to the Teen Spirit lite of ‘Rape Me’ to take the album forward and from here the album reaches something of a plateau, with track after track being as good as the previous before finishing on the truly sublime ‘All Apologies’.

So, any complaints? Well, not really. ‘Very Ape’ is very generic but other than that anything that isn’t touched with genius is unique enough to pull you in. What strikes you most on listening to album is how cohesive the whole thing sounds. Taking almost any of the tracks out of their album surrounding can dilute some of its impact but as a collective it’s like tapestry.

The Re-Issue comes with a whole host of other goodies, some good, some not so good. For you audiophiles out there the 2013 remastered mix of album sounds beautiful, giving you the opportunity to hone in on each instrument and harness that ‘live in the studio’ experience.

Anyone hoping for ‘You Know You’re Right’ style discoveries will be sorely disappointed with the only 2 previously unreleased original tracks, ‘Jam’ and ‘Forgotten Tune’. Both are instrumentals with ‘Forgotten Tune’ reminiscent of pre Nevermind offerings whilst ‘Forgotten Tune’ is very immediately post Nevermind, aping the improv styling’s of “secret track” ‘Endless Nameless’. Neither offer much more a than the odd decent riff and a glance of curiosity. The same can be said for much the remainder of demos on offer, although an early sketch of All Apologies in a cheery major key is definitely worth a listen.

The remaining tracks are cobbled together from various compilations, soundtracks and B Sides and if you haven’t got to the trouble to delve that far into the bands body of work previously you will be rewarded for doing so now. The likes of ‘Sappy’ and curiously named ‘I Hate Myself and I Want to Die’ show a band willing to toss aside songs that most other bands would, ahem, die for whilst the tender Dave Grohl penned number, ‘Marigold’ let’s Foo Fighters fans hear where it all began.

A third disk consists of the bands live set recorded for MTV on New Year’s Eve 93. A pretty terrible VHS version of this has been kicking about on the usual torrent sites for years now so hearing it in crystal clear audio for the first time is a joy. Whilst not being able to rival the 2 live recordings of the band already available (the excellent ‘From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah’, and the perfection of ‘Live at Reading’) it’s still a very decent listen.

Wrapping up the collection of extras is an extended version of the inlay pamphlet, an item which would have adorned your purchase in pre Napster times. Once a treasured object and one of the few ways a band could connect directly with their fans, there was a sense of nostalgia tinged sadness as I uploaded the pdf to my ipad. Filled with odd tidbits such as invoices for the recording sessions as well as hand written notes from Kurt on how the artwork should look it makes for a worthy accompaniment. The raison d’êtreit of the booklet is a typed letter from would be producer Steve Albini. Outlining his recording techniques and vision for the band he goes to great lengths to stress the punk rock ethos that Nirvana must comply with if he is to record with them; no record company interference, no post mix and no computers. Signing off with “if a record takes more than a week to make, someone is fucking up!” it gives fantastic insight on why the album sounds like it does.

The 20th Anniversary of In Utero manages to pull off that rare feat of being fundamentally a rehash without feeling exploitive. The remastered version alone is worth forking out for and it’s no exaggeration to say that it offers new listening experience on something which by now has become overly familiar. Most of all it is a fine companion to seminal album, an album whose legacy is so much more important than for simply coining the phrase ‘doing a Nirvana’.

Chris Harvey