Six Degrees of Nirvana’s In Utero

Maura Johnston

By Maura Johnston

on 09.24.13 in Six Degrees

It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album

In Utero - 20th Anniversary Remaster


Nirvana's third album was burdened with expectations almost as soon as it was even an idea; the success of Nevermind, their 1991 breakthrough, thrust them under a high-performance microscope, onto the gossip pages, and into the rumor mill. Stories that In Utero, recorded by noise king Steve Albini, did not please the band's label (because it was uncommercial) abounded in the months leading up to its release; Kurt Cobain told SPIN he felt like he was "stuck in a void" because of its tormented birthing process.

"Teenage angst has paid off well; now I'm bored and old," Cobain drawls as the record opens; he had turned 26 during the album's recording sessions. This slyly-expressed weariness defines much of In Utero; Cobain's screeched "Get awayyy!" as Dave Grohl bashes behind him on the grimacing "Scentless Apprentice" could have been directed at any number of people lusting after his newfound fame, while the defiantly downcast "Rape Me" is a wide-eyed challenge for people to do their worst to one another, from the repurposed "Smells Like Teen Spirit" riff on down.

What much of the chatter about In Utero's rawness misses, though, is the moments of intricate beauty hidden underneath the self-loathing and yowled lyrics. The low-in-the-mix harmonies on the chorus of "Pennyroyal Tea" undercut Cobain's clenched vocalizing of the title's abortion-inducer; the album's closer, "All Apologies," has a haunting cello counterpoint (played by Kera Schaley) that gets increasingly frenetic as the song sways toward its resigned conclusion. "All in all is all we are," Cobain groans to close out the track, one of his band's most lasting radio hits. In Utero's reputation as Nirvana's "difficult" album is undercut by moments like these, when Cobain's pain and his bandmates' musicianship create moments of near-transcendence.

The Inspiration

In the liner notes to Incesticide — the odds-n-sods comp released in 1992 to slake fans' (and execs') post-Nevermind thirst — Cobain tells a story about going on a quest to find the "very-out-of-print first Raincoats LP" in London. Not only did he find the album, he persuaded his label to reissue it along with the other two albums by this clamorous band, whose rip-it-up-and-start-again aesthetics resulted in some of the post-punk era's most joyous music. The band's curiosity and inquisitiveness shines through on each song; the slow-burn "Life on the Line" and the manic "No Side to Fall In" have moments of actual wonder, when the collision of voices and violin and guitars gels into something chaotic and mesmerizing. (And their cover of "Lola" flips the gender script twice for good measure.)

The Man Behind the Board

At Action Park


Chicago-based Steve Albini was notorious in the early indie rock days for his bands (Big Black and Rapeman) and his fiery essays (including "The Problem With Music," a warning sign for any musician looking to land a major-label deal). But he was also a prolific engineer who, before working on In Utero, had worked with the likes of the Pixies, the Jesus Lizard and Hum. In 1992 he formed Shellac with bassist Bob Weston (formerly of Volcano Suns) and drummer Todd Trainer; their first album is as brief as it is pummeling, with guitars that sound like electrical shocks being applied directly to the brain and stop-start rhythms.

The Tormented Woman

Rid Of Me

P.J. Harvey

Albini also recorded the second album by Polly Jean Harvey's eponymous trio, who were similarly thrust under the spotlight in the early '90s; their debut, the starkly confessional Dry, had been widely (and correctly) hailed as a masterpiece. Harvey began the process of writing Rid Of Me after running herself ragged post-Dry, and the songs are full of horror at everything humanity has to offer, Harvey taking it all in and forcing the listener to share in her terror as her voice and guitar wail. This album also has a master class in how a song is merely a blueprint for the music surrounding it; "Man-Size," a crashing rocker in which Harvey outlines her desire to possess masculine brawn, also appears on the album as "Man-Size Sextet," during which Harvey is accompanied by strings. In rock song form, it sounds like a boast; accompanied by strings, though, with Harvey operating at her most clenched, it very closely resembles a threat.

The Alt-Rock Beneficiaries


The Melvins

The success of Nevermind led to a bit of a gold rush by major labels, which snapped up college-radio staples seemingly by the dozens in the hopes of forcing lightning to strike twice. The sludgy Northwest outfit Melvins — beloved by Cobain, who also collaborated with drummer Dale Crover during the pre-Nirvana era — was among the bands that reaped the benefits. While their screwed-down, aggressive stoner-metal was too crossover-unfriendly to move "Teen Spirit" numbers, this album, their first for Atlantic Records, is a grimy masterpiece, from the gnarly opening track to the grinding, seven-minute epoch "Hag Me." (There's also a mudded-up cover of KISS's 1974 May-December lament "Goin' Blind" that sounds inspired by someone playing their copy of Hotter Than Hell at 16 rpm instead of 33.) Cobain has production credits on half the tracks, and he contributes guitar to the unsteady, weirdly menacing "Sky Pup."

The Heirs Apparent

Growled vocals, wittily caustic lyrics, sledgehammer-force riffs, a Sub Pop pedigree — this foursome is from Pennsylvania, not Seattle, but there's definitely shared DNA between them and Nirvana. On Honeys, their fourth LP, frontman Matt Korvette rages against healthcare machines (on the blistering "Health Plan") and lusts after stiletto-wearing ladies ("Loubs"); anxiety over getting through the everyday helps propel the cat-yowl guitars and high-grade drumming in such a way that even songs like the swampy "Male Gaze" have the sort of speedy tension usually reserved for thrashier music.