Friday, December 8, 2023

Review: Nirvana's 'In Utero' 30th Anniversary Box Set

After what seemed like an interminable wait, Nirvana finally released their follow up to Nevermind--the album that almost single-handedly plopped the pre-fab term "Alternative Rock" into the mainstream--in autumn of 1993. The band's purported goal was to shake off all the meat-heady fans they'd acquired since putting out a slick disc of metal-ish sounding drums and guitars and big sing-along choruses. Did it work? Well, although In Utero only sold half of Nevermind's figures, that's still pretty damn good, especially for an album so challenging and, despite some mixed notices, rewarding. Nevermind is a great record, but it lacks the personal atmosphere and unsanitized urgency of the record released just six months before the band's main voice took his own life. And that isn't just romanticizing a tragedy. Even before Kurt Cobain died, In Utero stood out for its perfect mix of classic melodiousness ("All Apologies", "Heart Shaped Box", "Scentless Aprrentice", "Dumb") and terrifying abrasiveness ("Scentless Apprentice", "Milk It", "Tourettes"), Steve Albini's massive and filthily organic production, and the tendrils of sadness twining through Cobain's grisly surrealism. 

That's a heavy legacy for an album being given the jolly 30th anniversary treatment, and it may account for why there is an almost total lack of text in this nine-pound-plus vinyl box set. The only reading on offer in the set's 48-page hardback book is a photo of Albini's letter to the band stating his working methods and expectations of the group. The rest is photos, graphics, and a few vellum pages. 

That leaves most of the talking to the music, of which there is eight-LPs worth. Leading the set is a new remaster of the core album, and compared to the Back to Black edition that has been the most common and affordable vinyl option for the past 15 years (and, frankly, the only copy I have for comparison purposes), I found this new remaster by Bob Weston (Albini's assistant engineer during the original sessions) to be much more dynamic, with better defined guitars, punchier bass and drums, and a deeper sound stage. It's also louder without being fatiguing on the ears.

Sitting in the other pocket of the main LP's gatefold is a disc with B-sides and compilation tracks on one side and a selection of live cuts from different sources on the other. The B-sides are an excellent assortment with such gems as Dave Grohl's menacing ballad "Marigold", the unbelievably catchy "Sappy" from the No Alternative comp, and the grinding "I Hate Myself and Want to Die" from the soundtrack of that Beavis and Butthead movie. The live cuts are mostly culled from a Rome show that was one of Nirvana's final concerts, but there's also a performance of "Milk It" recorded in Springfield, MA, and "Tourettes" from NY, both from '93. Despite some AI tinkering to exaggerate the separation between Cobain's and Pat Smear's guitars, the dinkiness of Grohl's usually elephantine drums, and the unsettling effect of having the audience's cheers almost completely muted, the Rome stuff sounds pretty good, as does that version of "Milk It" with extra-mumbly vocals from Kurt. "Tourettes", however, sounds like a low-grade MP3, quite possibly because of that AI business.

Which brings us to the next six-LPs in the set. There's a full set recorded at LA's Great Western Forum on December 30, 1993 and a nearly identical one from Seattle's Center Arena on January 7, 1993, both presented as triple-LP sets. While these recordings don't sound as gnarly as "Tourettes", they aren't ideal fidelity either. Of the two sets, the one from Seattle is less compressed with fewer artifacts. All in all, the sooner this current fascination with AI's ability to put people out of work and make old recordings sound weird comes to an end, the better. Nevertheless, the performances are terrific in spite of Nirvana's reputation for being an erratic live band during their troubled final year.

For the most part the vinyl is quiet, flat, and well-centered. Only the main album's bonus disc has a bit of a warp in the set I received, though it does not affect the sound. 

The packaging is certainly lavish, with that hardcover book, a clear acrylic panel featuring a print of the organ-exposing angel from the album cover, and a packet of goodies Krist Novoselic likened to the extras included with The Who's Live at Leeds. There are repros of concert tickets, posters, ads, fliers, and backstage passes. I was most impressed with the two live albums' triple-pocket jackets, the likes of which I'd never seen. Finally, a non-frustrating, non-chintzy way to store triple albums. Now there's something to celebrate.

All written content of is the property of Mike Segretto and may not be reprinted or reposted without permission.