As a culture, we love our milestones. They provide opportunities for valuable introspection and reassessment. Surely the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s third and final studio album, 1993’s In Utero, is a rich opportunity for that, since it was, perhaps, the single most anticipated album of an important music decade, and one that saw its pre-release publicity significantly and entertainingly overtaken by the band’s decision to record it with the gifted and thoughtful but notoriously polarizing underground sonic wizard recording engineer Steve Albini.
Forgive me while I detour to rehash some obvious consensus rock history, but discussing In Utero without the context of its predecessor’s significance is pointless. I wonder if it’s hard for anyone younger than say around their mid-30s to really grasp how damned HUGE the impact crater of 1991’s Nevermind really was. For those of us who’d spent the ‘80s listening—just like the young men who would become Nirvana had—to stuff like Hüsker Dü, Black Flag, and later, The Pixies, that LP was a Revenge of the Nerds scenario on a national scale, a big fat “I TOLD YOU SO” to the blinkered American culture industry that had spent a decade consigning its most transcendentally great rock artists to cult status, at best. Imagine if The Fugs’ second record made them as popular and important as the Beatles overnight. The sweetness was short-lived once it was realized that the explosion meant that the shows we wanted to see would now be massive, expensive affairs, full to the bursting point with the previously avoidable dicks who’d made an avocation of kicking our punker asses back in high school. And of course Pearl Jam and their ilk rushed in to fill the void of musical douche-chills left in the charts in no-time flat.
Disregarding this alter kaker’s tribalist crabbing, Nevermind wasn’t just a changing of the guard, nor was it a mere paradigm shift. It was a full-bore fucking zeitgeist reset button, making entire genres of pop music obsolete for the rest of the decade within three months of its release. Jane’s Addiction and Dinosaur Jr. had already been pointing the way to the future, but Nirvana brought us there whether we liked it or not, when nobody was looking, least of all Nirvana themselves.
Problem is, massive success is the first step down the road towards becoming a has-been, and this was the perception problem Nirvana faced with In Utero before they’d even recorded a note of it. Quick, name Deee-Lite’s next single after “Groove Is In The Heart,” or Peter Frampton’s follow-up to Frampton Comes Alive.
So mazel tov, you set off the atom bomb. What else you got?
It helped that, being steeped in punk’s burn-the-establishment disposition, Nirvana weren’t really interested in the pressures being brought to bear to somehow reinvent the wheel, twice, and saw the followup to Nevermind as their opportunity to wear their influences on their sleeves and drop a titanic and genuinely underground album - one that was guaranteed to sell no matter what it sounded like, and bring still more of their noisier forebears’ ideas into the wider marketplace. Hence the selection of Steve Albini to produce.
Having helmed landmark LPs by the Pixies and The Jesus Lizard, Albini had carved out a distinctive and uncompromisingly harsh sound (pretty much anyone listening to independent music in the ‘90s could tell within seconds if Albini produced something, just from the drum sound alone), and a reputation for difficulty that had spread beyond the underground. He was opinionated, vocal, and not one to suffer the machinations of major labels, and The David Geffen Company, Nirvana’s corporate keepers, knew it. Upon being asked to take the job, Albini sent a hand-typed four page letter to Nirvana, reproduced in the anniversary reissue (about which more later), outlining his recording philosophy.
I think the very best thing you could do at this point is exactly what you are talking about doing: bang a record out in a couple of days, with high quality but minimal “production” and no interference from the front office bulletheads. If that is indeed what you want to do, I would love to be involved.
If, instead, you might find yourselves in the position of being temporarily indulged by the record company, only to have them yank the chain at some point (hassling you to rework songs/sequences/production, calling-in hired guns to “sweeten” your record, turning the whole thing over to some remix jockey, whatever…) then you’re in for a bummer and I want no part of it.
I’m only interested in working on records that legitimately reflect the band’s own perception of their music and existence. If you will commit yourselves to that as a tenet of the recording methodology, then I will bust my ass for you. I’ll work circles around you. I’ll rap your head in with a ratchet…
His wishes were very nearly adhered to, but there was still a very public controversy. Ultimately, two songs, the singles “Heart Shaped Box,” and “All Apologies” were remixed by Scott Litt, a producer known for his association with R.E.M. (Also, a Litt remix of “Pennyroyal Tea” was, for some reason, swapped in to the bowdlerized version of the album sold in Marts, Wal and K.) Albini, true to form, delivered some unsparing snark about the matter to the music press, but he won out in the long run, as the album is justly considered Nirvana’s greatest work, and its his name that’s associated with it. But really, it’s not like the Litt mixes were so terrible. Here’s an A/B of Litt and Albini’s mixes, with the caveat that YouTube compresses audio tracks, so obviously this is nowhere near like listening to the masters.
Albini’s triumph is bolstered by his involvement in In Utero’s amazing 20th Anniversary reissue. (Of course, it had to be a pretty posh set or it wouldn’t have been worth the bother—a simple reissue would be competing with 20 years worth of used CDs, after all.) Though predictably compiling B-sides, live cuts and demos with a remaster of the original release and a live DVD, the reissue also contains a new Albini remix of the entire album. While it may, upon a first casual listen, suffer from the kind of but-but-but-it’s-different-than-what-I’m-UUUUSED-TOOOOO! bias that can afflict reinterpretations of classics, god damn if it ain’t essential, a genuinely valuable new perspective. (This actually isn’t even the first time Albini has bested a classic.)
I truly wish there was some way for me to share these mixes with you, but Universal is, understandably, keeping a tight grip on the release, so there’s no legitimate way to do so and you’ll have to wait until September 24 like everybody else (except lucky fucks like me, of course). The new “All Apologies,” just for one example, is fucking STUNNING, especially in headphones. The overall feel of the song is wider and roomier, the trademark Nirvana quiet verse-loud chorus dynamics are more exaggerated (and more effective) than in the Litt remix, and its glorious cacophony-exhausting-itself ending just absolutely slays. (Notably, it also comes off less like a Cobain suicide note - you know he killed himself, right? - than either the single or the subsequent Unplugged version, though of course the passage of time may be a factor in that.) The new “Heart Shaped Box” is tense, claustrophobic, raw, filthy, and vastly more emotively forceful than the radio version we’re used to. Scrubbing off the R.E.M. guy’s polish reveals an absolute powerhouse of a song. Albini tells the tale better than I can, speaking frankly and at highly edifying length about the original recording and the remix last month here on the Kreative Kontrol podcast.
If recording session details and backstory are your bag, I unconditionally recommend checking out the work of writer Gillian G. Gaar, author of this fine 1997 article and the superb book on In Utero from the 33 1/3 series. Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic talk about the sessions in this interview.
Of course, Albini has his own band, with its own impressive mastery of tension-and-release dynamics, evidently with a new album on the way. Enjoy this live in studio performance by Shellac.