While we were working on In Utero, the band would occasionally play other recordings of theirs in the control room for reference, or when trying to describe a part to one another. They had a cassette of the rough (Butch) mix of Nevermind, and it sounded maybe 200 times more ass-kicking than what I remember of the released version.
Make no mistake about it, Butch Vig was an excellent engineer and had a good, sympathetic relationship with all the noisy bands he recorded in the 80s. Those Killdozer, Appliances and Laughing Hyenas records all sounded fantastic and suited the bands perfectly. This version sounded like that, and that was obviously why they wanted to work with him.
Listening to the Devonshire mix of Nevermind, it's easy to see where Albini is coming from. Grohl's drums don't pummel their way through the mix as cleanly as they do on the familiar version, though this net reduction in power is frequently more than offset by Cobain's wilder-sounding guitar—which rattles in ways that sound new, even though we're talking about takes identical to those on the original Nevermind.
A listener can sit at home and pretend to be a nervous major label executive when the sustained close of Cobain's solo on "Smells Like Teen Spirit" breaks in jagged fashion from one discordant feedback tone to another during the following verse. (Those notes are blended together more convivially, and mixed lower, in the Wallace version.) The chorus of "In Bloom," with its casually sarcastic attitude toward "all the pretty songs," hits in a different way when supported by chords that sound as though they're scraping through your headphones. And Cobain's all-caps vocalization of the word truth, at the beginning of the third verse in "Lounge Act," is capable of startling even the most been-there-done-that Nevermind listener.
Yet it also carries an intensity Cobain can't quite keep up through the rest of the verse, so you understand why Wallace smoothed the whole performance out with a little reverb. Still, it's a telling word on which to have compromised so noticeably. It's the sort of difference that makes Cobain's oft-expressed regrets about a multi-platinum success seem understandable, finally.
We already knew Cobain could be of multiple minds about his pop gifts, as well as about his underground affections. (After all, we have In Utero.) But, aside from acoustic versions of the big anthems, we've never quite had such a control-experiment opportunity to hear both sides of his aesthetic sensibility, applied to the same songs. There are good reasons why Vig's mix won't replace the canonical Nevermind for most listeners: The drums do feel like they need a boost during "Breed," while "Territorial Pissings" plays without a later, overdubbed guitar line that I missed. (And the Devonshire version doesn't include "Polly," which was recorded at another session.) But, deficiencies aside, it's still a thrill and a privilege to have these variant mixes available not only for some of Cobain's best songs, but for some of his band's best studio performances.
The long-running Nirvana industry hasn't been particularly generous with consumers over the years, what with big box sets that tend to contain a lot of filler while missing a key track or two, or the endless stream of live versions that start to feel a little nameless. Something similar is at work with the Devonshire Mix and its place on the super-expensive "Super Deluxe" Nevermind package. But here's a hint: All 11 tracks on the Devonshire Mix are available a la carte on iTunes. At about $14, it's the most revealing and economical 40-minute serving of posthumously issued Nirvana since MTV Unplugged. The official Nevermind, of course, still sounds as undeniable today as it did upon its release—and now it feels immortal, to boot. It's so good it doesn't need any more journalistic buttressing (or, frankly, reissues). But Vig's mix doesn't have to displace it to be important. By offering new testimony on behalf of the will of Cobain's noisier instincts, this Nevermind commands our attention too.