Last December saw the 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana‘s Unplugged* recording, so, with my customary whippet-like speed (albeit an elderly, three-legged whippet with no sense of urgency or direction), a post on the highly regarded album, the band’s last release before Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide. Or, at least, a few random thoughts. I found this excellent article about the making of Unplugged by Andrew Wallace Chamings in The Atlantic: well worth a read. He even published it on time too.
Perhaps surprisingly on first glance, considering the racket they made live, three of the big Seattle grunge bands contributed to the Unplugged series, and all recorded, in different ways, outstanding live albums. (It’s a great shame Soundgarden didn’t record one.) Each band, their sound stripped down, revealed something critical of their essence. Pearl Jam‘s provided the most direct representation of their Ten-era songs: heartfelt, direct, focused. Vedder’s performance, most obviously on ‘Black’, is electric (ironically enough). Alice in Chains‘ Unplugged reflected the laid-back, at times introspective, side of the band seen previously in the Jar of Flies and Sap EPs. Not recorded until 1996, sadly it also shows a withdrawn, diminished Layne Staley, long submerged in his heroin addiction, flickering to life only intermittently. But, of the three, it is Nirvana’s that is the most striking, not least for Cobain’s impassioned, edgy performance.
By taking away the relentless rhythms, distorted guitars and raging vocals of their studio albums, Nirvana’s Unplugged draws out a different side to the band’s personality. In one sense it was obvious this would be the case: the sensitivities and insecurities latent in Cobain’s songwriting were always going to be more transparent in an acoustic set; the challenge was to be willing, as an artist, to lay himself quite so bare.
Other major challenges for the band lay in song selection and arrangement. Even as a two-guitar band with Pat Smear onboard, many Nirvana songs simply wouldn’t have worked well acoustically, or would have offered little beyond the electric version. The band made some obvious choices, leading off with the Beatlesy jangle of ‘About a Girl’ (Cobain couldn’t resist a tart jibe about the audience not knowing the song because it was from the first album), and later following it with ‘Polly’ and Something in the Way’. Other songs in the quiet verse/noisy chorus mould also translated well, especially with the addition of Lori Goldston’s yearning cello. Slightly comically at times, drummer Dave Grohl tried to play as quietly as he could, hair tied back and wearing a black polo neck, with only brushes and a minimal kit. You keep expecting him to have an Animal-style meltdown.
But it was in the covers, which accounted for nearly half the set, that the band really shone – from the three Meat Puppets songs, to Bowie, The Vaselines and Leadbelly. It was a risk to do this – the covers showed both some of the band’s influences and their contrary side – but as with the best covers, they work because the band put so much of themselves into the songs (including Krist Novoselic’s deft accordion skills on the Vaselines song). This is most true with ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’, which finishes with such an existential howl from Cobain, as he wrenches something visceral hidden deep inside, that it provides a definitive and unyielding end to the set – there’s nothing left to expose after that. It’s a brave, honest and, one imagines, utterly draining performance.
(You may have to click on the link to access the Youtube page for this one.)
Because of Cobain’s haunting vocals on the Leadbelly song, and because it was Nirvana’s last recorded performance (beyond bootlegs of the 1994 European tour), there’s a tendency, in the shadow of Cobain’s suicide only a few months later, to think of Unplugged as some sort of final statement. For all its intensity, it’s a considerably more accessible listen than the wilfully stubborn In Utero** and, coupled with the imagery of the stage set – all those lilies with their retrospective morbidity – it’s become the more iconic album, second only to Nevermind. Cobain with acoustic guitar, shoulders hunched in an oversized green cardigan, is a ubiquitous image. But it could be argued that, whereas In Utero was a reflection of where collectively Nirvana stood in 1993, Unplugged revealed the band to be rapidly approaching a crossroads; afflicted by a multitude of tensions (music, drugs, unwanted celebrity), it may have been that Cobain was thinking about moving on and doing something new, away from Nirvana and the encircling pressures. Either way, Unplugged deserves all the praise it has received: a truly great performance.
*MTV Unplugged in New York, to give it its full title, it was recorded on 18 November and released in December 1993.
** Here’s a thoughtful post by my friend Eric on In Utero on its 20th anniversary. And here’s a post by yours truly.