There’s an interesting internet meme that’s been doing the rounds over the last few months. It takes a sideswipe at today’s popular music culture and it features the late Kurt Cobain in a split screen photograph alongside Justin Bieber. It simply says “1994 was the worst year in music. Kurt Cobain died and Justin Bieber was born. It’s like Kurt KNEW”. OK, so maybe it’s a little sick, but it also neatly segues into the fact that this year marks the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s last studio album “In Utero” being released and to mark the occasion a special collector’s edition of the album has been brought out. What of the original though – twenty years on, has it stood it the test of time?
Radio Friendly Unit Shifter
Well in short, it really has. Listening to the album afresh shows you that many of the tracks are still completely unaffected by the passage of time. They still sound as good as they did back then and in a lot of cases fresher and more vital than many new rock bands who can only hope to make the palest of nods towards grunge. The Steve Albini produced album was not without its difficulties, it being reported at the time that there were tensions between producer and artists, meaning that on two of the tracks – “All Apologies” and “Heart Shaped Box” (interestingly enough, the tracks on the album that were most commercial sounding) one time REM producer Scott Litt was brought in to rework and master them. It would really take only the keenest of music nerds to spot any real differences though.
It’s an odd, bitter-sweet record in many ways. Fans bought it thinking that it was just the latest album by their favouriteband. New fans to their music now buy it knowing it was the last full album Nirvana recorded before Kurt took his own life. Therefore, their impressions of it are totally different to those people who listened to it at the time. For the latter, it’s a musical full stop. To the former it’s simply a collection of songs that were, at the time, marking the progression of a band that should have had many more years recording ahead of them. The fact we know Cobain battled addiction and alcoholism for years alongside repeated bouts of poor general health too- and this makes the album seem even more poignant. In the years after his death, relations had reportedly said that Cobain was not the only member of his family who had been looking to seek help for alcohol abuse and drug problems. Two of his uncles had reportedly experienced similar issues with substances and subsequently gone on to end their lives in the same way Cobain did, by shooting themselves.
It’s a daring album that still has the power to shock, upset and affect twenty years on. Ironic, then they chose to call one of the tracks on the album “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”, when what is contained within, for the most part is anything but. Some would say it’s an honest, open record that simply shows how the band were developing and maturing their sound and in some way trying to come to terms with their enormous commercial success, whilst at the same time trying to marry it to their creativity. Of course, “Nevermind” will probably still always be their greatest success, but “In Utero” tries to be the album that is bolder, daring and startling in both its musicality and its lyrics, possibly deliberately so as an attempt to try and steer themselves away from any sort of popularity contest. Un-radio friendly songs like “Rape Me” are put alongside tracks that are, whichever way you want to dress it up, catchy and made to pull you in, such as “Heart Shaped Box” and “All Apologies”, songs for which anyone with a passing interest in learning guitar might have turned their hand to in an attempt to try and impress their friends.
Twenty years on, we’ve learned that whilst this album might not have been their most commercially appealing set of tracks, it still offers anyone a chance to glimpse, for the last time, the mind of someone whose personal life and dark soul very often overshadowed the great talent and creative genius he displayed on the stage and in the studio.