How Nirvana's 'In Utero' Re-Issue Could Win Them New Fans

10/10/2013 17:10 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

"If... 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."

Those are words from a letter leaked online from recording engineer Steve Albini to the three members of Nirvana, discussing plans for In Utero, the eventual follow-up to the million-selling Nevermind. He went on to express his desire to "bang a record out in a couple of days, with high quality but minimal "production" and no interference from the front office bulletheads."

There is some irony in the fact that, twenty years later, that same record company are celebrating the anniversary of In Utero with Deluxe and Super Deluxe expanded editions of the album, which include a full remaster of the original record, a bunch of rarities and live tracks, and best of all, a new mix by Steve Albini himself, which is so good that it has actually made me re-evaluate the songs. To my ears at least, Nirvana have never sounded better.

Twenty years on from its original release - which the history books tell us was on vinyl only for the first week, believe it or not - In Utero is still an album that inflames and divides opinion.

If 1991 was the Year that Punk Rock Broke then 1993 was the year when the fight between the independent and corporate factions of the music industry intensified.

For those fans who had followed the band from their early Sub Pop releases and their debut album Bleach, who had twitched uncomfortably as Nevermind became a runway success, In Utero was an album they welcomed with open arms. For others, it was too abrasive and they turned their attention to the likes of Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots.

Rumours quickly spread that the first mixes of the album were too rough for the record company, and favoured producer Scott Litt was brought in to knock off some of the more troublesome edges present on Albini's original recordings. I remember being surprised at the time that the album wasn't the bleak, nasty collection of songs that many had expected. Yes, it is edgy and abrasive but both the remaster and the remix are still very listenable and not that extreme. Whilst Milk It and Radio Friendly Unit Shifter sit well with underground contemporaries like the Jesus Lizard and Bitch Magnet, 'Dumb' could be a Beatles out-take.

These new editions include the original 1993 Albini mixes of the first two singles - Heart Shaped Box has some arresting and abrasive guitar, and All Apologies has more space in it than radio stations might expect. These were remixed at the time by Scott Litt, and listening now, it is difficult to see why they needed that.

Even though it is shot through with lyrical images of death and disease, these all work within the context of the songs. Heart Shaped Box has the memorable refrain "I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black" yet people found themselves singing along. The title Rape Me must have caused some record company people sleepless nights, especially when they listened and discovered it was a song built from the same infectious template as Smells Like Teen Spirit.

I always imagined the band having fun playing these games with the music business. In Utero would have sold no matter what tricks they pulled. Nirvana, and especially Kurt, wanted to be part of the underground, but they were just too damn good at writing tunes that had wider appeal than that. Kurt's patronage towards forgotten acts like The Raincoats and the Vaselines brought those people back from obscurity and they also helped to revive the careers of Daniel Johnston and Shonen Knife, to name just two. Those were the type of musicians Kurt wanted to be associated with.

So what purpose does this gigantic new edition serve? Will it just lead to obsessive fans fighting over which mix is superior? Is it sacrilegious to tinker with Kurt's final studio recordings to this extent?

No doubt, people will raise a cynical eyebrow towards the deluxe editions. The concept is so far away from Albini's plan to bash the album out quickly, it almost seems ridiculous. My favourite line from his letter is "If a record takes more than a week to make, somebody's f--king up".

However, the reality is that the "product", to use a cynical music industry term, is very good indeed. I know that I sidelined In Utero after Kurt's death and for years I preferred the downbeat Unplugged in New York as his epitaph. Yet this edition has got me interested again. Sure the extra tracks and demos are less than essential - although Albini has given B-sides Sappy, Moist Vagina and I Hate Myself and Want to Die his special treatment - but the album sits proudly amongst the very best rock records of its time. Steve Albini's 2013 Mix gives the original album a sense of space and an extra edge, and best of all, a new lease of life.

It is rare to find a re-issued, re-packaged version that may actually gain the album even more fans, but I reckon In Utero has a good chance of becoming such a thing.