"It's a good record, okay? It's a heavy record. It has lots of melody on it. It has its quiet moments, and it has its intense moments. It's all there."
Krist Novoselic, the former bass player for Nirvana, is talking on the phone about In Utero, the band's 1993 album that is now receiving its 20th-anniversary treatment in the form of a heaving, multiformat reissue of remixes and remasterings, demos, detritus and a DVD.
Novoselic is a nice, chatty man, but he's not terribly effusive when speaking about the record, the final studio effort before Kurt Cobain took off for the "Leonard Cohen afterworld" or about the album, which, upon its original release, Rolling Stone critic David Fricke weightily described as a "triumph of the will."
The triumph was Cobain's. "You had this band that bolted out of obscurity to be this phenomenal number-one rock band," says Novoselic, who, with producer Steve Albini, reworked the sound for the reissue. "Kurt bore the brunt. He took a lot of the pressure, being the front man and the singer and the songwriter. So that was the triumph of the will."
From its opening line – "Teenage angst has paid off well; now I'm bored and old" – In Utero was a reaction to Nevermind, the breakthrough album from 1991 that invented grunge, reinvigorated rock music and, with its dynamic hit Smells Like Teen Spirit, catapulted Nirvana from outsider malcontents to MTV heroes. The album pleased many people, but not necessarily the band itself. "Nevermind is too slick … I can't listen to that record," Cobain said at the time. "In a commercial sense, I think it's a really good record, I have to admit that, but that's in a Cheap Trick way.
The multiplatinum success of Nevermind bought the band members nice houses but cut against Nirvana's grain. Punk-rock guilt set in.
And so the follow-up In Utero was a tormented, claustrophobic, corrosive, ugly, ulcerated pop-and-monster masterpiece, recorded by Albini – he was a hero to the band – in remote Minnesota. Cobain howled sardonically and painfully, naming one song Radio Friendly Unit Shifter while rhyming "married" with "buried" on another.
Teen angst was replaced by rock-star angst.
The album's quiet-soft dynamics were intact, with subdued verses followed by big choruses, but the tone was abrasive. And lyrics? "I wish I could eat your cancer," sang Cobain on the single Heart-Shaped Box, "when you turn black."
Not surprisingly, the band's record label – David Geffen's DGC Records, distributed by Warner – took issue with an album that Cobain reportedly planned to title I Hate Myself and Want to Die. The medical imagery of the album art was off-putting; the b-side to the second single All Apologies was Rape Me.
It was widely reported at the time that the band itself was not satisfied with Albini's production, but Novoselic denies that now. "It was the label," he says. "For a commercial record, it was a little too dark sounding, and we tried to fix that." To that end, R.E.M. producer Scott Litt was brought in to remix All Apologies and Heart-Shaped Box.
The anniversary edition features the original Albini mixes of those songs. The package includes editions of the original album newly remastered and remixed by Albini and Novoselic. "We wanted to open it up," says the bassist, "and to have it breathe a little better."
In an interview published in early 1994, Cobain admitted that the post-Nevermind stardom had come too quickly and too explosively. "If there was a Rock Star 101 course," he said, "I would have liked to take it." He also disclosed that chronic stomach problems had caused him suicidal thoughts for years, but that now he was off heroin, healthy and more content than he had ever been in his life. "I'm a much happier guy than a lot of people think I am."
But on the last line of Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle, Cobain sang a different story: "I miss the comfort of being sad." On April 5, 1994, he took his own life – suicide by self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head.
"It's too bad," Novoselic says. "Kurt was so talented. He should have kept going. Have you ever seen his paintings? They're weird, dark and beautiful."
So too, In Utero.