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Kurt Cobain's Disconsolate Masterpiece
on 26 September 2013
20 years already? Christ, I feel old.
Like many of my generation, Nirvana were more than just a rock n' roll band. Nevermind, and the band that made it, were the gateway into a whole world of underground music and art that people like me still are still burrowing into two decades later. At the time, In Utero was met with a degree of bafflement, and to some extent derision from the press and the legions of fans the band had accumulated in the preceding two years. The band, and particularly Kurt, had made it clear that they were deeply uncomfortable with the level of fame thrust upon them and this was their attempt to wrest back control from the big machine. Ironically, Kurt's pop instincts were never sharper than on this record; look beyond the raw production, the feral performances and the layers of feedback and you'll find a record with better songs and vastly more emotional weight than it's more famous predecessor. If Kurt had lived, they probably would never have made another record - I mean, where can you go from here?
This record is the best representation of Nirvana's "classic" line up. Dave Grohl, who on Nevermind was actually playing the parts written by former drummer Chad Channing, here shows us what he's made of - driving the songs forward with his Led-Zep-goes-hardcore beats that seem to spur the band on to another level of hugeness. Plenty had happened in Cobain's life in the preceding two years, and he had no shortage of things to write about - marriage, his family, drugs, childbirth, selling out, sociopathic perfumers... It's a testament to how good Nirvana were as a band that despite the dark subject matter and hair-raising performances that what resulted was a record that stands up against any other album from any other decade.
As regards the record itself, I don't have the remastered version, however, I'm going by the assumption that the fabled Albini mix contained here is the same as the one accidentally issued on vinyl a few years back. For those unfamiliar with the back story, In Utero was recorded, mixed and mastered by Steve Albini. At the last minute, the band or the record company (depending on who you believe) chose to have three songs (Heart-Shaped Box, Pennyroyal Tea and All Aplologies) remixed by R.E.M. producer Scott Litt to make them more radio-friendly. Additionally, the whole record was remastered and slightly compressed to make it sound less raw.
Around the mid-2000s, Universal reissued the album on vinyl. For some reason, the mastering engineer cut the record from the Albini tapes instead of the cleaned-up Litt tapes. The differences are subtle, but noticble. For a start, vocals are mixed much lower, and not double-tracked. The bass is thicker and heavier, the drums have more presence and the stereo image is wider. The overall sound of the record is frankly monumental.
Nevermind might be the record on a million "best ever" magazine lists and a million T-shirts, but In Utero stands as the record that cemented Nirvana's place among the greats.