Nirvana, ‘In Utero: 20th Anniversary Reissue’ – Album Review
Nirvana’s third studio album, ‘In Utero,’ was the most experimental of the band’s career. In many ways, it was also their loudest, darkest and most artistic. Frontman Kurt Cobain had originally wanted to call it ‘I Hate Myself and I Want to Die,' and that speaks volumes about his mindset at the time. And as everyone knows, he'd make good on his morbid threat less than seven months later.
But the band would end up calling the record ‘In Utero,’ meaning simply "in the womb" or "before birth," most likely a reference to Cobain having a newborn daughter, and the fact the band had gone back to the drawing board, seeking a new sound, a sonic rebirth, with producer Steve Albini.
However hard the band tried to break out of the confines of what the public viewed as "popular music," the album was a huge worldwide success, topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
To mark the album's 20th anniversary, DGC has released a box-set of sorts, featuring newly remastered and remixed 2013 versions of the original 12 songs; a 13th track, ‘Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip,' originally available on non-U.S. pressings; b-sides (including Dave Grohl’s lone Nirvana song contribution, ‘Marigold’); alternate mixes and outtakes; lyric-less demos for a handful of the songs; and audio and video of 'Live & Loud,' a full concert recorded by MTV at Seattle’s Pier 48 on December 13, 1993. The set also comes with expanded liner notes, a poster and LPs. In short, there’s a lot to take in here.
Reissues are a difficult row to hoe, because most of the time, they’re done to fuel new interest in a band -- wake society up to something it missed out on way back when. But the world didn’t have any problem buying into Nirvana’s shooting star, and by the time this album surfaced, interest had reached a fever pitch.
So look at this 20th anniversary reissue as more a companion piece or sidecar to the great original. Unless, of course, this is your first time listening to the album. (Some future Nirvana fanatics may still be in utero upon publish of this review.)
What's immediately notable is the official release of the 1993 live album, which captures Nirvana at the top of their game. The band sounds eerily comfortable with the songs, many of which are not walks in the park to play. At times, you hear Cobain stopping to tune his often slack-tuned guitar and re-rendering lyrics in the heat of the moment. On ‘Serve the Servants,’ for instance, he sings “I tried hard to have a sister, but instead I had a dad.” The band also rips through choice cuts from ‘Nevermind’ and ‘Bleach,' as well as the David Bowie cover ‘The Man Who Sold the World,’ which would appear on the band’s posthumous live ‘MTV Unplugged’ set. This version of the Bowie classic, however, is full-on electrified, with Cobain singing the cello part at the end in his ragged, melodic growl. It’s a stunning set of songs, seemingly unearthed from the vaults, though it has existed as a bootleg for years.
The stars of the outtakes, rarities, and b-sides are, of course, the aforementioned ‘Marigold,’ which is proto-Foo Fighters, with Grohl on both melody and harmony vocals (a wispier demo, featuring an apologetic Grohl saying “sorry” to somebody, is also included); ‘Sappy,’ which originally appeared mislabeled as ‘Verse Chorus Verse’ on AIDS-benefit album ‘No Alternative’; and ‘I Hate Myself and Want to Die,' which would have fit on ‘Nevermind’).
The demos make for the only tedious moments in the set -- given that they’re wordless and really only there for the real audiophiles and über-Nirvana dorks. They only provide so much insight into the process. (‘All Apologies,’ for example, comes off as a lighter, country-fide cut; while the ‘Dumb’ demo starts off sounding eerily like ‘Polly’).
All in all, though, this is a tremendous treasure trove of music that shows off the biggest band of the '90s at its peak.