WAKE OF FIRE
…WHICH IS where the canonisation starts.
There now follows an easy prediction. Kurt Cobain will become one of those revered figures (see also Lennon, Hendrix) around whom there is only the faintest murmur of debate; someone who’ll only have the word “over-rated” sprayed on to their headstone by deluded heretics; who has already risen way above cultish small-fry to stand as the fantastic exemplar of a whole era.
For sure, what tends to befall the spectres of such people is not always pleasant. He’ll probably be talked about by tweed-suited pundits with only the faintest clue about what made him great, end up on Athena posters tacked on to suburban walls and have every last bit of tragedy and gravitas that surrounded him ground into trite soundbites.
Thankfully, we have the records: the artefacts that can speak in a language uncluttered by sentimentality and already fill the listener with a strange-tasting mixture of exhilaration and sadness. It should come as no surprise that listening to large parts of Unplugged is like hearing ‘A Day In The Life’ or ‘The Burning Of The Midnight Lamp’ — you are silenced, suddenly made to ransack your thoughts. That’s how good he was.
There may be imperfections here: the way that Kurt’s fingers can’t quite cope with an acoustic guitar, occasionally making the foundations of the tracks sound frail and fractured; the fact that his voice can sometimes get a little too nasal, his teeth a little too clenched. In all, they matter little, either because they lend themselves to the idea that we’re party to something unfettered by circuitry and production gloss, or because they’re swamped by an overwhelming charm.
The virtues of this record are almost endless. For a start, it’s candid enough to be sprinkled with laugh-strewn dialogue. “Am I going to do this by myself?” asks Kurt before ‘Penny Royal Tea’. “Do it by yourself,” replies Dave Grohl, like a schoolteacher. “Well,” says Kurt, “I think I’ll try it in a different key. I’ll try in a normal key, and if it sounds bad, these people are just going to have to wait.” There follows a welter of sitcom-esque laughter.
It also features off-kilter cover versions and sparkling arrangements (with cellist Laurie Goldstein and guitarist Pat Smear) that peak when Novoselic picks up an accordion. But what’s most appealing about ‘Unplugged’ is the way that it roots Nirvana at the meeting point of a web of crucial forces. Listening to four or five of these tracks is enough to reveal the band’s essence; to make out the patchwork lineage that was sometimes obscured under that steely, adrenalised noise.
So, it begins with ‘About A Girl’, lifted from Bleach and made to sound a thousand times more lithe and streamlined. The musical backdrop suggests the Beatles in 1964, at their lovelorn best: minor-key introspection gives way to regular traces of lightened-up calm, only to regain the upper hand within bars. Inevitably, Kurt sings it in a screwed-up rasp, making it sound — as with so many of his songs — like a collision of innocence and tortured experience. For that reason, encapsulated in the fact that it rides on a divinely simple verse/chorus/verse undertow, it may be the most beautiful song here.
Elsewhere, there’s a cover of Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ — trailed by Kurt mumbling “I guarantee you I will screw this up” — featuring a lone fuzzed-up guitar (the only instance of cheating) and delivered with a frayed panache, boosted by the incongruity of the lank-haired urchin paying tribute to the English dandy. There’s the ominous, disquieting finale: a reading of Leadbelly’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ that leads Kurt to wail and mewl as if the song means more to him than we’ll ever know, and manages to retrospectively cast him as another variant of the archetypal bluesman…
…And there are two nods to the indie-rock seedbed that produced them. The first is a reading of ‘Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam’ (with the accordion, and Dave Grohl on bass) that sounds a little like the Velvets at their most folky: dirge-laden, hushed, slightly Celtic. The song originated in the classrooms of British Sunday schools, only to be twisted into weird shapes by the Vaselines, the terminally adolescent, shambling Scottish group that Kurt adored. So, the word “Don’t” was inserted into the title. The lyrics were amended until they said “sunbeams are not made like me”. And in Nirvana’s hands, the contortions reach the point that it becomes the eternal lament of the outcast, infused — after the fact — with added poignancy. “Don’t expect to me to cry,” sings Kurt. “Don’t expect me to lie/Don’t expect to me to die…”
Six songs later, after an exquisite ‘Something In The Way’ has come to a close, they bring on Chris and Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets, and turn out versions of three Puppets songs, on which Kurt takes the lead.
It’s fleetingly irritating: they don’t sit comfortably with what surrounds them, sounding a little like the product of a back-slapping after-hours party. In truth, it’s hard — for their duration, at least — to escape the feeling that they prevent Unplugged from standing as a stone classic, taking it away from being a testimony to Kurt’s brilliance and briefly edging it towards the status of an accomplished curio.
‘Plateau’ is spooky and countrified, with joke-ridden, pseudo-epic lyrics. ‘Lake Of Fire’ is a blues piece, peppered with shrill riffing and built on cod-brimstone warnings about burning in Hell. They both sound sumptuous, eerie — but they’re not cut from the same cloth as either Kurt’s songs or the three other covers. Only ‘Oh Me’, a delightfully self-pitying, plaintive song, gets close, and even that is soon thrown into the shadows.
Inevitably, there are countless moments on Unplugged that make such misgivings sound like idiotic quibbles — ‘Penny Royal Tea’ being an astounding example. Kurt does it solo, replacing the bass-heavy, concrete underbelly of the In Utero version with his fractured guitar, only intensifying the impact of the lyrics. They’ve become even more transparent (“I’m so tired, I can’t sleep/I’m anaemic royalty/I’m a liar and a thief), and he sounds like he’s singing them in the dead of another pain-wracked night. More than anything here, it appears to be a doomed attempt at a public exorcism.
‘Polly’, ‘Dumb’ and ‘Something In The Way’ aren’t too far from their pared-down recorded cousins, only they’re drenched in the same intimacy and fragile beauty as the rest of the record, so there are moments when you come to the shocking conclusion that you might actually like them more. The cello still snakes its way around ‘Something’ and ‘Dumb’, the chorus of ‘Polly’ is still glued together by jarring harmonies — only this time, you can hear Kurt’s hands scraping over the frets and his voice straining. They’re underpinned, in essence, by the feeling that what you’re hearing isn’t that far from the sound that Kurt would have made the first time he played them, giving them an amazing magnetism.
The same applies to ‘Come As You Are’ and ‘On A Plain’ — both rendered with little desire to re-invent fine existing blueprints — and ‘All Apologies’, which is spellbinding, its central riff sending out jarring waves of tension. The rumbling, ominous cello part sounds stunning. By the time it glides into its whispered “All in all is all we are” coda, you’re drenched in a jumble of feelings that leave you reeling…
…Whereupon ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night adds a thrilling final frosting, routeing us into music that’s already been accepted as timeless. It’s a fitting epilogue: soon enough, Nirvana’s songs — hewn from inspired influences that this record makes beautifully clear — will be viewed with an equal amount of awe and scholarly respect. Unplugged gives us proof that’s all but conclusive.
So, what was expected is true. As the dust has settled, the last traces of sensationalism have disappeared into oblivion and serious retrospection has begun, this album makes its makers sound legendary. Your hankies should be at the ready. (9)
© John Harris, New Musical Express, 29 October 1994