Nirvana’s Brutal Last Album Revealed, Clash Beats Elvis

It has taken 20 years.

At last we can hear the painful birth of one of rock’s most controversial LPs.

Nirvana’s final album “In Utero” is often cited as the most influential of the 1990s, though the full story of its creation only becomes clear with the new edition, out last week.

For the first time, we can hear the rival versions of songs as the grunge band, producer Steve Albini and record company executives argued on how to top the hit “Nevermind.”

Albini’s previously unreleased raw mixes of “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies” are uncompromising. While they got toned down to more polished versions, it’s still one of the most brutal CDs ever heard, with misleading titles such as “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter.”

The front man, Kurt Cobain, first wanted to name the album “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die,” the phrase he used when someone asked him how he was. The band, snowed into a Minnesota studio, turned out dozens of blistering tracks in 14 days.

The demo recordings show Cobain starting with regret, sighing “teenage angst has paid off well now, I’m bored and old” in “Serve the Servants,” the first song on the album. The husband, father and heroin addict screams with anger for “Rape Me,” then returns to resignation with a “married, buried” sigh on “All Apologies.”

He committed suicide a little more than a year later.

Rating: **** for the remastered album (about $22) and *** for the $130 larger box set -- there’s just too much of it.

Amid the rash of other sets out this year, there’s much to recommend in “The Complete Albums Collection” by Paul Simon ($130, out in October) and Sly and the Family Stone’s “Higher” ($52). The 47-disc Bob Dylan “Complete Album Collection Vol. One” follows in November at $250. Fans will have most of this material, apart from maybe a few rarities. Still, the boxes are lovingly packaged -- at a price. Rating: *****

Harry Nilsson’s “The RCA Albums Collection” ($100) also has its moments. Rating: ***

The Clash’s “Sound System” is in a class of its own at $177. The container is in the shape of a 1970s boombox and houses 12 discs, including a lot of excellent rare and live material. It also has a lot of unnecessary merchandize: stickers, badges, bumper stickers and dog tags. Rating: ***** for the “Hits Back” set or **** for the full package.

The last word goes to the King. Earlier this year “Elvis Presley Aloha From Hawaii via Satellite” came out in a deluxe edition featuring the broadcast show and a safety net recording of a rehearsal. The remastered sound quality is excellent, though it’s doubtful anyone other than trainspotting admirers need two versions of the same show. Rating: **

Much better is “Elvis at Stax,” which puts a good case for being Presley’s best of the 1970s. The 28 masters and 27 outtakes, recorded at the Memphis studio over a dozen nights, include “Raised on Rock” and “Promised Land.”

The power of his voice is still there. He’s very different from Cobain, of course. Yet this record, too, gains poignancy with the knowledge its singer was not to be around for much longer. Rating: ****

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Exceptional
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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