Nirvana - In Utero: 20th anniversary edition
Put a group of long-time Nirvana fans into a room and you'll find champions for all three of their studio albums: Bleach (the distillation of Kurt Cobain's teenage vision); Nevermind (their commercial high-water mark and Cobain's most productive period creatively); and In Utero (the best synthesis of his melodic gifts and noise-punk influences). The latter, now re-visited in this 20th anniversary edition is generally considered his most mature work, yet critical reception at the time was cooler, with Melody Maker listing it as only the 26th best album of 1993 and NME as the 30th - although it was #1 in Rolling Stone's list. Given the front pages that the band, and this album, can still secure, such reserve seem strange, yet In Utero came during a year so rich in musical highlights (everything from debuts by Bjork, Rage Against The Machine and Suede to Rid of Me and Selected Ambient Works '85 -' 92, its strengths - and ultimate longevity - perhaps seemed less obvious.
On release, In Utero held a mirror up to the grim reality of Cobain's personal and domestic life, albeit cut with his usual sense of nihilism. Aware that more and more people wanted to unpick his psyche ("The legendary divorce is such a bore"), he still used his music to settle scores ("My favorite inside source ... You'll always stink and burn") or allude to his drug use ("a blanket acne'ed with cigarette burns") in a manner that ran contrary to his supposed post-Nevermind frustration with the trappings of fame. Over time, you realise that Cobain's over-arching personality trait was that contrariness: the punk rocker who sought recognition, and then hated what came with it; a generous and gentle man who raged internally and could make public threats to those he felt had wronged him; and who was by all accounts, a doting father (despite 'Heart Shaped Box's "umbilical noose"), his subsequent death a betrayal to his family but rationalised in his own, disturbed mind, as a solution to their issues. As such, the duality of the quiet/loud aesthetic that defined much of his music becomes even more representative of the man himself, one who chose to name his band after the Sanskrit word for peace of mind, yet which, as the Cosmic Joker no doubt laughingly noted, literally translates as 'blown out'.
Although it works as coherent body of work, the album itself is a rather rag-tag ensemble of the old and new, with around a third of the tracks at least two years old by the time of recording. This did mean, however, that Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl were familiar with the material and sessions with producer Steve Albini were done and dusted within two weeks. Although ostensibly happy with the results, the band later drafted in REM producer Scott Litt to work on a few key tracks - much to Albini's public chagrin. The finished result showcased those two sides to Cobain's songwriting, the soft ('Dumb', 'All Apologies') and the hard ('Radio Friendly Unit Shifter', 'tourette's') and everything in between. And while his lyrics remain a patchwork of often barely semblant phrases and non-sequiturs chosen for shape and sound rather than obvious meaning ("I take pride as the king of illiterature / I'm very ape and very nice" from 'Very Ape'), he can throw in something like "Out of the sky / Into the dirt" in the same song. Rock music in the 1990s didn't get more bluntly existential than that. That it was an inspiration for Manic Street Preachers' The Holy Bible the following year was no surprise: the shared sense of body horror and self-loathing, built on a post-punk frame delivering the closest anyone on this side of the Atlantic got to echoing IU's primal scream.
Compared to the recent multi-disc Smashing Pumpkins re-issues, the already-stripped Nirvana vaults offer up fewer treats. To someway compensate, Steve Albini has been drafted in to remix the original album, alongside a straight remastering. This remix, which fronts up the bonus second disc, is odd from a creative perspective: the original was, mostly, Albini's - which you presume he was happy with - so does seem a little like tinkering for tinkering's sake. Nevertheless, the new version ups the Albini effect, bringing Cobain's voice forward and giving Nirvana trainspotters the opportunity to spot snatches of different guitar parts and vocals tics. The rest of the running time is beefed up by a selection of other demos and out-takes, including the weird, almost ska rhythms of the original 'All Apologies' and a furious (vocal free) take on 'tourette's' that nails the band's punk credentials.
Seven months after its release, Cobain was dead, by his own hand, in the most brutal rejection of the myths and reality of the rock music lifestyle the industry had ever seen. Ever since, popular music has been intangibly diminished, smaller - and less important. With the greatest respect to Breton (#30 on 2012's NME Albums of the Year), it's perhaps no surprise that kids will stand in the rain waiting for a new phone or video game, but not the latest CD. Or at least that's how it sometimes seems, from this "old and bored" perspective.
Kurt Cobain's life would still have a few twists and turns, but In Utero would be his last, planned, work. In Utero. It means 'before birth' - a time of innocence, a time of comfort and safety before the fall. Climb back in, and remember (or discover) why we're still talking about this band 20 years on.