This week sees the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s third—and, as it would tragically play out, last—album, In Utero. Such occasions are a cause for looking back not only at the artifact in hand (and the way that time has altered our perception of what was, at the time, a cause for intense debate and disagreement), but also at ourselves and what we’ve become.
For those of us old enough to remember when In Utero was first released, the stunning fact of 20 years is as powerful and as devastating as the impact of Nirvana itself: the way that the band seemed to explode out of nowhere to profoundly reshape the direction of pop music for what may have been the last hurrah of mainstream radio as we once knew it; Kurt Cobain’s subsequent suicide; and the realization that in many ways, we had lost something that could never be regained.
Universal Music has done what any company would do under the circumstances, i.e. they’ve tried to cash in on our sense of loss and nostalgia. Not that it’s a particularly cynical move; by all appearances, the 20th anniversary edition of In Utero is a thing of beauty, gorgeously packaged with tons of bonus material, live performances and all the other stuff that makes it tempting to try and recapture the electric shivers of our vanished days. But it’s almost impossible to contemplate the set as anything like a physical or cultural object when it comes weighted with so much of our own history. Can it really be 20 years? Is it possible that we are as far removed now from In Utero—simultaneously the crowning moment and the last gasp of grunge, that heavy and dynamic strain of American punk—as In Utero itself was from the heyday of Mungo Jerry, Seals & Crofts, and the Steve Miller Band?
But ultimately, it had to be about the music before it could be about us. Chaos and conflict swirled around the release of In Utero: the superstardom of a band that never expected to be anything of the kind; the hiring of the musically and personally abrasive Steve Albini to deliver a raw and squalling sound; the subsequent hiring of the far more mainstream Scott Litt to make the album’s singles more palatable and saleable; and the profound indifference bordering on dread with which Cobain viewed his newfound fame and which would inform his decision to take his own life. All these things can only be understood in the context of what it sounded like then, and what it sounds like now.
In Utero can no more sound new to us than we can be eternally swollen with pride each time we hear the National Anthem at a ballgame. And it is surely not a perfect album—the clashing production styles of Litt and Albini are evident, and the songs were clearly crafted in the heat of a conflict between authenticity and commercialism.
No, In Utero doesn’t sound fresh—it can’t. But it does sound great. Cobain had truly come into his own as songwriter, the band was at the peak of its musical power (they literally would never get any better) and, most of all, it is an album of deep and powerful emotional agony. Two decades have not dulled its inexpressible and contradictory ache, and this far down the road, if it has lost its immediacy, In Utero has managed to become something like the ruins of Pompeii: a time of terrible pain, frozen forever in an eternal moment.
Back In Utero
What the 20th anniversary reissue of Nirvana’s In Utero has in store
CD 1 - Original album remastered plus all B-sides and bonus tracks
CD 2 - 2013 album remastered mix plus pre-album demos
CD 3 - Live & Loud: Live at Pier 48, Seattle, 12/13/93
DVD of Pier 48 show
For you diehards out there, it’s also available in triple-vinyl form (original album plus extras), a single CD (original album remixed), and a single DVD of the 1993 Pier concert