Nirvana, ‘In Utero’ (Geffen/Universal)
There has never been an opening line of any album that was more self-referential, or revelatory, than the first words Kurt Cobain sings on “In Utero”: “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old.”
Cobain was 26 when he composed those lines — just two years after Nirvana’s breakthrough album, “Nevermind” — and he already felt the weight of the world upon him. Those words, though, were quintessential Cobain: full of psychological contradiction, but also beguiling.
If that opening salvo from “Serve the Servants” seemed insightful when the album came out in 1993, 20 years later those lyrics seem prophetic. Next April will mark two decades since Cobain’s suicide, but this month represents the 20th anniversary of “In Utero.” The album is being rereleased today and given an extensive box-set treatment. There are five different format variations, with remastered and remixed tracks.
What will excite fans most is the “super deluxe” three-CD/one-DVD “In Utero,” which also includes the December. 13, 1993 MTV “Live and Loud” broadcast from Seattle’s Pier 48. It was an incredible performance, maybe Nirvana’s most consistent Seattle show, and it is captured here perfectly on the DVD and accompanying live CD.
Most hard-core fans will quickly skip over to the dozen previously unreleased demo recordings on the first two CDs of the set. Though some of this material has leaked out on various bootleg recordings, the sound quality on tracks like “Forgotten Tune,” which is an instrumental jam, makes you feel like you are in the room. There is, however, no lost “nugget” on this set like “You Know You’re Right,” though “Jam,” which ends the second CD, shows how musical the band could be even screwing around.
The set includes two full versions of “In Utero”: the first is the official released album with Steve Albini’s mixes, while the second has new mixes. Kurt was unhappy with the sound of “In Utero,” and for any audio engineer, or audiophile, it is fascinating to compare the various demos and mixes here of essentially the same songs. I prefer the new mixes, but that may be splitting hairs.
But it is the songs on “In Utero” that matter the most, and they soar. “Heart-Shaped Box,” “Pennyroyal Tea” and “All Apologies” represent the zenith of Cobain’s songwriting acumen; the album’s overall aesthetic, which leans more punk than pop, is admirable, too. Kurt wanted to step back from being a pop star, and he did so here by writing lyrics that were mostly about his own internal struggle.
“In Utero” was Nirvana’s third album, and it was the trio’s best. “Nevermind” will forever be Nirvana’s most famous album — and most influential — but “In Utero” is Cobain’s and Nirvana’s finest artistic accomplishment, if only for the songwriting. This deluxe treatment, whether you buy the single CD, or the vinyl or the full “super deluxe” set, is simply marvelous.
Two decades later, “In Utero” feels anything but “bored” or “old.”