I Miss the Comfort In Being Sad: A Very Specific Review of the In Utero Reissue

When I was introduced to Nirvana, I was in the 6th grade. It was 1995. The bookshelf stereo that I listened to Nevermind on was set up on my desk, the same solid piece of furniture my father had grown up using. I was told on numerous occasions that they just don’t make furniture like this anymore. As I began my descent into Nirvana Obsession, my first step towards cutting the cultural umbilical cord, I frequently lamented the fact that I had arrived too late, that Nirvana was no more, that Kurt Cobain—my hero—was dead.

Now, as I begin the descent into my 30’s, I couldn’t be happier about it.

Coming to Nirvana after the hype (hype that I have only ever read about) that surrounded Grunge allowed me to approach their music without the baggage. Nirvana came along at precisely the right moment in my life and struck precisely the right chords (literally and figuratively). That time is one of the formative periods of my life.

Since then, the culture absorbed the meteorite, Nirvana. The Man finally collected the shards and fragments of the band—arrowheads and fire water—and was soon selling them for cheap at roadside stands in chunks—Rock Band avatars, reissues, B-sides, raw, gristly boom box demos and jams. I viewed the latter as the Picasso napkin doodles that I intentionally did not look at while honeymooning in Barcelona, totally aware of the fact that this was practice; that this was what the artist had not wanted me to see.

So when I heard that In Utero would receive the 20th Anniversary Reissue Treatment, I let out yet another groan, in solidarity with everything 13 year-old me stood for.

But then I heard two interviews—first with Steve Albini on Kreative Kontrol, and then with Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic on All Songs Considered. My interest was—piqued. This didn’t sound like an attempt to cash in. This sounded like an attempt to do right by the memory of what I (and many) consider to be Nirvana’s best album.

The details of the reissue are as follows (via Rolling Stone):

The first disc will feature a remastered version of the original, Steve Albini-produced In Utero, complete with the two tracks ("Heart Shaped Box," "All Apologies") that Scott Litt mixed for In Utero's final version. The oft-bootlegged abrasive Albini versions of those two songs will finally legally appear on the IU reissue, as will the IU-era B-sides and non-album tracks: "Marigold," "Moist Vagina," "Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip," The Beavis and Butt-head Experience's "I Hate Myself and Want to Die" and the No Alternative hidden track "Sappy." Additionally, the stocked first disc will boast Litt's remixed single version of "Pennyroyal Tea." All the tracks were remastered at Abbey Road Studios for this release.
The second disc is where things get interesting. That CD will kick off with a new "2013 album mix" of the full album — it's unclear if this is Albini's more visceral version of In Utero or something completely different. But the real jewel on this disc is "Forgotten Tune," a recently unearthed instrumental recorded by Nirvana during an In Utero-era rehearsal. There's also "Jam," which as the title suggests was recorded during the same October 25th, 1992 jam session at Seattle's Word of Mouth Productions that resulted in embryonic versions of "Tourette's," "Pennyroyal Tea," and "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter." The Word of Mouth demos of those three tracks will also feature on the IU reissue.
Finally, as previously reported, the In Utero reissue's third disc features a remastered recording of Nirvana's December 13th, 1993 concert at Seattle's Pier 48, which was broadcast on MTV as Live & Loud. The DVD of the performance, sold both as part of the deluxe reissue and a standalone disc, features the entire concert, plus a dozen more performances culled from the Live & Loud rehearsals, the band's In Utero European tour (including a loose cover of the Cars' "My Best Friend's Girl" from Munich), and a director's cut of the "Heart-Shaped Box" music video.
The reissue will also include Cobain's handwritten lyrics, a four-page letter Albini wrote the band prior to recording detailing his plans for In Utero, plus liner notes written by comedian and occasional In Utero tour opening act Bobcat Goldthwait.

For the purposes of this essay, I only focused on the 2013 Mix, undertaken by Steve Albini at his studio, Electrical Audio (different from the remastered version of the album, also undertaken by Albini, but at Abbey Road Studios), the mix that Krist Novoselic described this way:

It was all there. It was like, it's so straight-ahead: It's an old-fashioned record in some ways, like it was before the Internet. We made this record before computers. And, again, it's nice to have it breathe a little bit. So we just pried it open a little bit. And that was the mission: Kind of open the windows and kind of freshen it up.

I listened to the original twelve tracks roughly 8-10 times (at least 8 times all the way through for every song). These are my reactions to each track.

1. "Serve The Servants" (2013 Mix) - 3:36

Drums. Cymbals. Hi hat. Drums. My atheist god—cymbals. The Albini Sound revolves around the drums, but this is otherworldly. It hits me—I always knew that The Beatles had a huge influence on Kurt’s songwriting, but “Servants” is basically a cover of “She Loves You” with more distortion.

2. "Scentless Apprentice" (2013 Mix) - 3:49

Did I mention the drums yet? The kick drum tone almost seems to encapsulate the ripples in the drum head with each strike. There’s a churning undertow in this song, the combination of the kick, the floor tom, and Krist’s bass, that could drag you out to sea. The vocals have been changed slightly too; they have more of a bullhorn quality to them, like riot police attempting to be heard over the chaos. And because I know this won’t be the last time I say this—loud/soft.

3. "Heart-Shaped Box" (2013 Mix) - 4:41

Nirvana’s sound is defined by their interplay of loud versus soft and In Utero is where they spun their web the tightest. Every song contains it. It just happens that “Heart-Shaped Box” also contained some pop elements and approachable lyrics that turned it into the classic-if-not-really-the-best track. The two tom hits that introduce “Hey” and “Wait” in the chorus are magnificent. My favorite moment in the song though comes at 2:53, though, when Kurt strikes two chords to transition us out of the solo, one distorted, the next clean. It’s a raw moment on an album full of them. I just love that they thought to show it to us.

4. "Rape Me" (2013 Mix) - 2:49

Heavy-handed lyrics? Yes, probably. But the cymbals crash here in a way that forces you to pay attention. Dave Grohl: Clubber. And do the verses have a familiar Teen Spirit-ish jangle to them? Yes, probably. I miss that they left out the muted guitar string count-in; I thought it was an appropriately rigid intro.

5. "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle" (2013 Mix) - 4:12

The sonic interplay of loud and soft is most apparent here. Dave’s right foot was very, very tired after this song. The wet, live line of distortion left in as the second rhythm guitar comes in during the first verse is a perfect note. The snare fill that leads us into the breakdown is a fill that I will never forget the timing of, not ever. And that breakdown: just glorious. I can see all of 1993 rolling around on the floor, losing their minds as it happens.

6. "Dumb" (2013 Mix) - 2:32

I love that, on the first mostly ‘quiet’ song on the album, the instinct to include something muddy couldn’t be ignored. Krist’s bass sounds like the sound waves were dragged through molasses and then left under a butane torch for thirty seconds—syrupy with a crunchy finish. It perks your nose hairs up.

7. "Very Ape" (2013 Mix) - 1:57

All these years later and this might still be my favorite song. Simple and soaring. And this mix adds a firehose release of distortion right from the start—obviously the lead guitar left open. It is a thing of beauty and by far my favorite 2013 Mix addition. “I’m too busy acting like I’m not naive.”

8. "Milk It" (2013 Mix) - 3:56

Guts and anatomy and biology and human insides are all themes that run throughout In Utero (Hello—In Utero?) and I love how Milk It (Chorus: Doll steak/Test meat) applies those ideas. The lead guitar string scratching/bare notes is a mite or a maggot, just inching through the song, or maybe ants scurrying to find shelter before the buzz saw of the chorus. Another visceral loud/soft song.

9. "Pennyroyal Tea" (2013 Mix) - 3:32

Another respite. Another lyrical moment that, when I was 13, I had no comprehension of meaning, but made me feel—something. “Give me/A Leonard/Cohen afterworld/So what if/I can’t sigh/Eternally.” I see now that the sonic qualities of that moment (swinging drums, more gorgeous bass sound) played a part in my appreciation of.

10. "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" (2013 Mix) - 4:51

The longest song on the album. The noise jam quality feels very familiar in 2013. More driving drums, more loud/soft. The song is a bridge to the end of the album.

11. "tourette's" (2013 Mix) - 1:35

Hearing Kurt Cobain say, “Moderate Rock” at the beginning of this song was one of the small artifacts of truth that I had in 1995  to clue me in to what he actually sounded like. I remember trying to change my vocal inflection to capture it.

12. "All Apologies (2013 Mix) - 3:55

The interplay of loud and soft in each song is one thing, but In Utero as a whole features that same relationship; “Heart-Shaped Box” to “Dumb” to “Pennyroyal Tea” to, of course, the final track, “All Apologies.” It’s difficult not to view this song with some added overtones of finality that I’m sure weren’t intended at the time of recording. Kurt just sounds—tired. All in all is indeed all we are.

When we became teens, Kurt Cobain was already dead. He was the canary in the coal mine, the martyr we sent up to report back on impending adulthood.

What were we to learn from the fact that he didn’t make it?

Kurt taught us to embrace the anguished yell that we all felt in our throats and in our bellies. He taught us not to reach a point where we missed the comfort in being sad. We learned about pain (he had it), about addiction (he had that too), and about the positives of burning out before fading away.

I don’t think it was a coincidence that Kurt clothed himself in jeans and cardigan sweaters that appeared to have already seen a lifetime of use after only 27 years.

In Utero is a masterclass in grappling with—and harnessing perfectly—the dynamics of loud and soft, of fast and slow, of the beginning (In Utero) and of the impending (albeit unknown) end. The 2013 Mix makes all of that more obvious than it ever was.

As I already somewhat tweeted, I wish we could sit down and listen to every record that came out in 1993. I’d love to see how many of them still hold up after twenty years. I’d love to see how many of them sound like they—while perhaps good, even memorable—belong in more than just our musical past. My guess? Not many. In Utero sounds as fresh as ever, right at home in 2013 as anything else.

In 1995, I literally had to find Nirvana—they were already gone. I’ve never known the band as anything other than a part of the past.

It’s wonderful to have them feel so present.