Twenty years later, In Utero reigns as Nirvana’s poetic, grimy apex
It’s always the question with Nirvana, the most important band in the history of alternative rock save for only possibly the Velvet Underground: What’s left to say? Now documented and immortalized with its third boxed set, the band’s studio swan song was the ultimate follow-up, with Steve Albini on hand to destroy the pop goodwill Nevermind’s runaway success imbued the trio with for David Geffen, and such agreeable titles as “Rape Me” and “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” to greet program directors previously besotted with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” We know In Utero turned out to be anything but poisonous commercially, with the string of “Heart-Shaped Box,” “All Apologies” and “Dumb” ensuring this wasn’t the Bad to Nevermind’s Thriller.
On In Utero, Kurt Cobain’s lyrics opened up like never before, nearly as poetry when he sang of a “Leonard Cohen afterworld” or an “umbilical noose,” but also developing his keen obsession with femininity, from themes of childbirth and the female anatomy (“Pennyroyal Tea” was selected as a subject for its assistance in inducing abortion) that extended to the famous album artwork, as well as bringing Cobain’s feminism to the forefront. (“Rape Me” was a chilling protest, a martyr plea from a privileged white male to unload some of the burden of women’s collective fear and pain.)
What this two-decades-on look back opens up is not how abrasive the album was, but rather how subtly its melodic foundation supported its thrashy intentions, especially on the “Live And Loud” disc from a 1993 concert that showcased new vistas in the backing harmonies of “Sliver” and “Pennyroyal Tea” and eschewed album thrashers like “Very Ape” and “Tourette’s” in favor of an earlier, electric take on Bowie’s delicate “The Man Who Sold The World” before the definitive Unplugged performance, veering pop-friendly on typical selections like “Drain You” and “About A Girl,” and only going off the grid for the brutal bookends of “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” and blinding mess “Endless, Nameless.” The well-known b-sides now collected in one place (“Moist Vagina,” “Sappy,” “I Hate Myself And Want To Die” and Dave Grohl’s “Marigold”) comprise a strong EP with completely unreleased, surfy jam “Forgotten Tune”; only the debris-like “Gallons Of Rubbing Alcohol Flowing Through The Strip” fails to create a context for itself.
Then you have alternate mixes that grow confusing, from Albini and Scott Litt’s original treatments of tunes that now have alternate choices, to mysterious “2013” mixes meant to simulate something not very distinct from the finished album at all, to the decidedly un-illuminating LP demos (unless you really need to know how much distortion was originally called upon for “Scentless Apprentice”). Diehards and students of audio recording will certainly be able to identify the here-and-there tidbits of difference between these warehouse-cleaning takes. Since most people can make do with the excellent new live set, and it only comes with the triple-disc option, spring for the separate DVD. The album proper already excellently spoke for itself 20 years ago.