Though the sound of Nirvana's Nevermind has moved many a critic to unfurl high-flown rhetoric over the years, what's not being talked about during this week's feel-good fest is how the album's sonics came to rankle Kurt Cobain to no end. "Looking back on the production of Nevermind, I'm embarrassed by it now," Cobain told journalist Michael Azerrad in the 1993 book Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana. "It's closer to a Motley Crue record than it is a punk rock record."
This wasn't a one-off comment, but something of a mantra for Cobain during his interviews from the period. His distaste for the album's radio-ready sheen comes up repeatedly in Azerrad's book: It's described as "candy-ass" or something he "can't stand." The best thing Cobain can say about the record's high-gloss sound is that it doesn't completely obliterate his ability to be moved by the songs. "When I listen to Nevermind, I hate the production, but there's something about it that almost makes me cry at times," Cobain admitted to Azerrad, in the course of worrying about whether the songs on the follow-up, In Utero, would seem emotionally checked-out by comparison.
Cobain's ritual self-torture over the commercial capabilities of Nevermind can be considered, then, as a foundational part of Nirvana lore. His very public dissatisfaction led directly to the band's choice of post-punk demigod Steve Albini as the producer—or, as Albini prefers, "engineer"—of In Utero. In the dramatis personae of the Nirvana narrative, Albini is the pissed-off yang to the shiny-happy yin of Andy Wallace, the major-label-approved "mastering" whiz who gave Nevermind its airplay-inviting varnish. (He cranked up the drums and the treble through compression and scrubbed some of the noise from Cobain's guitar tracks.)
Now, in the "Super Deluxe" edition of the Nevermind reissue, we can hear producer Butch Vig's original, pre-Wallace mix of Nevermind for the first time. This ought to be a big deal. Especially since the rest of what comprises the various Nevermind reissues can be separated into categories of Nirvana "rarities" to which longtime fans have become accustomed (not to say bored). Vig, who had a reputation as someone with a good ear for pop as well as for noise, had been the band's first choice to record their second album, even before drummer Dave Grohl had joined—back when Cobain thought it would be released on the indie label Sub Pop. By the time Nevermind was being prepared for David Geffen's label, Vig was already on familiar terms with its key songs, since he'd also recorded the demos that landed Nirvana their major label deal.
So it's strange to see Vig's original mix of Nevermind now being weirdly undersold—not least by Vig himself. A summer article in Rolling Stone, which promised a look inside the reissue set, derided the early mix as "a disaster." This assessment was propped up by Vig, who remembered: "I'd be balancing the drums and the guitars … and Kurt would come and say, 'Turn all the treble off. I want it to sound more like Black Sabbath.' It was kind of a pain in the ass." In addition to this self-diss, Vig's version—called "The Devonshire Mix" on this reissue set—is stranded as the third CD of the most expensive edition of Nevermind. This means it's being held out as a treat for the insane hard-cores.
Either way, this isn't the first time the whole Vig-Wallace mixing controversy has felt somewhat papered-over in the years since Cobain's suicide. Charles Cross' 2001 Cobain biography, Heavier Than Heaven, properly noted that Cobain agreed to Wallace's touch-ups only after a lobbying campaign by label execs, a campaign that proved to be a "difficult task." Then Cross quotes Wallace himself as saying "Uniformly, we all wanted the recording to sound as big and powerful as possible." (Well, OK then!)
In a twist so neat it feels scripted, the only person willing to stand up for Vig's mix of Nevermind turns out to be … Steve Albini. This August, on the (vibrant) message board for his Electrical Audio recording studio, the engineer wrote:
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.