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In Utero (Reissue) Marc Burrows , October 1st, 2013 09:25

'Forgotten Tune', the only properly unheard bit of material on the lavish In Utero reissue, is the sound of two things. Firstly it's the sound of a decent band jamming out a half-formed idea that they'll never get round to finishing, and secondly it's the sound of a barrel being scraped.

The problem with re-releasing In Utero was always going to be the bonus material. Fancy packaging aside, how do you persuade fans to fork out for an album they've owned for two decades? With Nevermind's 20th Anniversary release that was relatively easy - Nirvana's graduation from sludgecore punks to grunge heroes had been well documented at the demo stage - for a start they'd recorded most of the album once before for an abandoned Sub Pop release. Wise heads in charge of the catalogue had held most of that back, making the Nevermind reissue genuinely desirable. With In Utero there was no such treasure trove. In 1992 and 1993 Kurt Cobain, distracted by fame, a new family, health problems, addiction and plain boredom had become a pain in the arse creatively, and while he did ultimately write the best album of his career, he could hardly be accused of being prolific. The In Utero sessions resulted in very few spare tracks, producing only two b-sides, 'M.V' and Dave Grohl's 'Marigold', and a further two songs - 'Sappy' and 'I Hate Myself And I Want To Die' - given over to compilations. What's more 2004's With The Light's Out rarities set had an entire disc covering the debris of 1992 to '94. Frankly, the well was dry.

But 20th anniversary re-releases have to happen, don't they? Convincing older fans to pay top-whack for records they already own is one of the few things keeping the music industry afloat; but how the hell do you pad out a release when all the odds and sods necessary are out in the world already? Fortunately for the Nirvana catalogue someone put in a call to Steve Albini.

The engineer (not producer, never producer) who recorded the bands' final and finest album is the real hero of this release, and has clearly worked his arse off for it. While it doesn't quite justify the £80 price tag for the four-disc edition, it does throw the record into a new context by showing the working out- which is, after all, the only real value in these things. First of all there's the remaster of the album-proper, usually the most pointless bit of the endeavour. Albini has remastered it himself, and it's genuinely an improvement. One of the first records mastered for the modern era to be all punch and attack has, if anything, even more balls than it had 20 years ago. It's a brilliant job. That done, he went ahead and remixed the whole thing.

The existing mix of In Utero has always been controversial. At the time rumours famously circulated that the band had made an “unlistenable” album designed to kill off fair-weather fans. The wilfully difficult, uncompromising Albini was a big part of those concerns. With 20 years hindsight it's weird to think anyone was worried: It may start with a discordant slash, but Nirvana's third record is clearly full of hits, and however hard Cobain tries to sabotage that (revisiting the formula of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' to create the most obviously commercial song here, and then calling it 'Rape Me' for starters) his melodic instincts always punch through. Even so, at the time jittery execs (with the full backing of the band) compromised and brought in REM producer Scott Litt to remix and sweeten the singles. Albini, who had sent a fairly amazing letter to the band before starting work declaring that “remixing is for talentless pussies who don't know how to tune a drum or point a microphone” was furious.

It's hard to say whether the new mixes are actually better than the originals, but they're different enough to make you hear the songs all over again. It's a really smart move - when you've been listening to a record since 1993 it's hard to really hear it anymore, familiarity does half the work. Albini's remix means the whole album sounds fresh again. With subtle tweaks, a different guitar take, whatever, on a subconscious level they throw new light on old songs. Also present are Albini's original, rejected mixes of 'Heart Shaped Box' and 'All Apologies', probably the part of this release hardcore Nirvana fans were most interested in. Again, all these years later, it's hard to see why anyone was worried - they're fine. Are they better than the versions we know? Not necessarily, but they'd have been hits all the same. Interestingly Albini's 2013 versions are the most accessible and commercial sounding of the lot.

That's pretty much where the value for money ends. A new mix of 'Sappy', a potentially-amazing song Nirvana attempted several times between 1987 and 1993, still doesn't quite work, 'I Hate Myself And I Want To Die' is totally disposable and a handful of mostly instrumental demos reveal nothing new about the record, in the way the ugent home demo of 'Rape Me', or the nine minute jam that becomes 'Scentless Apprentice' from With The Lights Out do. It's all filler. The aforementioned 'Forgotten Song' is completely pointless and could be any rock band of the last 30 years, and a five minute jam titled, er, 'Jam' is an afterthought, nothing more. Those shelling out for the 'super deluxe' version get a live album and DVD that gets extra points for added Pat Smear, but is a less urgent, slicker performance than previous live releases, at least until the inevitable gear-trashing catharsis at the end of 'Endless Nameless'.

These anniversary sets will always feel like a cash in. We need to get over this idea that every jam, sketch or microphone fart by canonised bands like Nirvana or Joy Division is worthy of our cash. A good chunk of the extras here are dross- the barrel has been scraped, there was one great 'new' song in the bank ('You Know You're Right' released in 2002) and we need to accept that there's nothing else there. The coffers are empty. The rest is noise. That said the In Utero 20th anniversary reissue does scrape a pass thanks largely to Albini's involvement. It should go without saying that the four-disc edition probably isn't worth the money, but the cheaper two disc or the triple 12” are genuinely desirable items, and if you're a fan still in love with owning nice, proper 'things' then they're satisfying objects. For those less inclined to commodity fetishism, and unbothered by alternative mixes and sketchy demos, the original version is currently on ebay for 99p, and it's still one of the most urgent, exciting rock albums ever recorded - that's surely all the In Utero you'll ever need?