In Utero: 20th Anniversary Edition
It’s a bittersweet irony that the 20th anniversary edition of In Utero was released on another anniversary: that of its predecessor, the album which made Kurt Cobain a household name and In Utero was seemingly a reaction against. The latter meme has been bandied about for decades and a song itself (“Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”) has been cited as the torchbearer for Cobain’s disdain for Nevermind [DGC-1991]. But in the end the gambit backfired: In Utero has never eclipsed Nevermind in any way, shape or form, and despite being the final studio album by the most significant rock band of the ‘90s, it has largely receded to background status, barely eclipsing Bleach [Sub Pop-1989] in that regard. Its best songs remain powerful, yet rarely heard these days (“Serve the Servants”, “Heart Shaped Box”, the aforementioned “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”) and its two most enduring tunes (“Pennyroyal Tea” and the sadly, beautiful “All Apologies”) live on in their stripped down versions from the band’s live MTV Unplugged album instead. Nirvana never did become The Jesus Lizard 2.0, either.
If there’s one thing accomplished by this expanded 20th anniversary edition—which includes the album’s original mix, a 2013 mix, and assorted b-sides, outtakes, demos—it’s to shine a light on how finely tuned a microscope there was on Nirvana at this point in the band’s career. The infamous original mixes by producer Steve Albini for singles “Heart Shaped Box” and “All Apologies” (which garnered so much animosity and controversy between the various factions involved, not to mention feeding the press’ obsessive appetite for all things Nirvana in the wake of Nevermind), are not that far off from Scott Litt’s later mixes. The Albini mix for “All Apologies” has louder, slightly more nuanced guitars. That’s it.
As for the reissue itself, the main criteria from the fan P.O.V. remains the same for In Utero as any other: Do you love this album enough to repurchase it, along with the extras included in an expanded version? Nirvana’s studio epitaph probably deserves better than a blunt, plain invitation to your collection—the 2013 Albini mixes could be reason enough to re-evaluate In Utero, or at least judge it in a slightly different light—but if its creator’s intent was to alienate and distance ourselves from his last batch of songs, simply because we were partial to the ones which came right before it, we should, at the very least, contemplate honoring his last musical request.