20th anniversary reissue re-establishes 'In Utero' as all-time rock greatALBUM REVIEW: If you were a music-loving kid in 1993, and this album changed your life, you might be able to listen to this and not embark on some nostalgia trip, but rather remember what it was like to be around and in love with sound when Kurt Cobain was still making his.
By: Tony Bennett, Duluth News Tribune
“Speak / speak the truth,” Kurt Cobain sang on his final studio album, “In Utero.”
More than his now-famous, oft-quoted opening couplet in “Serve the Servants” — “Teenage angst has paid off well / now I’m bored and old” — this “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” line jumped out at me during my first time through the fresh “2013 mix” that’s included on the 20th anniversary special edition remaster-remix-re-release-re-whatever of this classic album. Because it seems like that’s what Cobain was doing here. Mixed in with his usual jumble of gross-out lines and halfhearted puns, there are threads of stone-cold truth, of risky honesty. Some of it feels eerily like a cry for help.
One of the things that stinks the most about Cobain’s death by suicide in April 1994 is the fact that, to this day, there are people who will loudly mock Cobain for being a spoiled-rotten brat who turned chicken instead of enjoying his money and fame, for taking the quote-unquote “easy way out.” Even now, when science has given us so much more information about the crippling nature of depression, there still are those who cannot get over the fact that this guy had everything and “chose” to destroy himself rather than continue living. Yet few can imagine what it would be like to suffer from mental ailments, an addiction to heroin, a tumultuous marriage and nonstop scrutiny from all corners of the globe. All of this hit Kurt Cobain at once. He was a bum, and then he was the most famous musician in the world. He never adjusted.
In some ways, this album feels like a rough draft of Cobain’s suicide note, something that might not be surprising, given that the album’s working title was “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die.” It’s all there, if you look. Images of judges, witches, burns, tar, cancer, soil, nooses — and that’s just in the first few songs. “You can’t fire me because I quit,” Cobain sings in “Scentless Apprentice,” the pummeling noise jam. About half a year after this album was released, he would quit life.
So, how does such a dark, disease-and-death-obsessed album still hold up?
The passage of time has nothing on “In Utero.” If anything, it feels more like an unassailable monument of rock, something akin to John Lennon’s primal “Plastic Ono Band” LP. As with that album, stripped-bare sonics and emotions are the order of the day, so much so that it makes the listener slightly uncomfortable, like you’re hearing something private, something not meant for public consumption.
But, in the fall of 1993, the public consumed “In Utero” in droves. Not “Nevermind” droves, mind you, but droves nonetheless. Millions of people heard this album. Now, with the arrival of this remaster, perhaps even more will. So, what is there to be had?
Depends on which version you buy, of course. The offensively expensive super-deluxe version comes with a book and a DVD of the band’s 1993 MTV “Live and Loud” performance, but you can get all the audio (save the DVD, which is also being sold separately) on the cheaper, less-deluxe versions. In any event, there’s the original album, a new remix by Steve Albini, and a bunch of demos and B-sides from the same time period. Not all of the supplementary material is great, but some of it is. “MV” still is grosser than gross, with one of the best endings Cobain ever came up with; “Sappy” still is one of Cobain’s best songs, and the chorus lyric “You’re in a laundry room” still somehow rings as profoundly lonely; and “I Hate Myself and Want to Die” still is fuzzy and buzzy and tossed-off and great fun, especially given the title.
The 2013 Albini remix mostly is unnecessary, but it’s revealing and fresh in spots. Songs start and end slightly differently, without familiar stick clicks or guitar scratches. “Serve the Servants” has a completely different guitar solo. Guitar tracks and backing vocals are louder, quieter and repositioned. “Very Ape” has added guitar bits. If you know the album like the back of your hand, this is a way to forget that familiarity a bit. But if the changes are too noticeable — as they are on “Dumb” (where’s the cello in the chorus?) or on “All Apologies” (what’s that annoying drone guitar doing in the verses?) — it can be enough to make one reach for the original.
And that original album, it still smokes. It burns. It seethes. It sears, topically and tonally.
There’s a quality to this Minnesota-recorded masterpiece that makes the whole album feel like a set of great pop songs thrown in a frying pan and cranked to the max. Cobain’s unique, undeniable melodic and lyrical gifts are on display as they were on “Nevermind,” but all the bells and whistles have been removed. Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic bludgeon the songs, thump them into submission. “Scentless Apprentice,” “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” the Melvins-ripoff “Milk It” — all of them are just as burly today.
The Nirvana discography is too slim, and it’s hard to find new morsels to savor. This reissue doesn’t shed any kind of fresh light on their final album, but it allows the listener to view it from different angles, which is enough to re-establish “In Utero” as one of the best rock albums of the 1990s, if not of all time.
If you were a music-loving kid in 1993, and this album changed your life, you might be able to listen to this and not embark on some nostalgia trip, but rather remember what it was like to be around and in love with sound when Kurt Cobain was still making his.
It was exciting.
And the reason why is because this stuff was indeed uncommonly good. And, yes, true.
Tony Bennett is a News Tribune arts and entertainment reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
'In Utero' 20th anniversary reissue: