Nirvana: Unplugged In New York (Geffen GED 24727)

“IT’S BETTER to burn out than fade away…” The death of Kurt Cobain affected the (rock) world like no other since John Lennon’s. Was it the method (not quite as squalid as Hendrix, Moon and Vicious here: altogether more shocking)? Was it the times? Was it the thought of that beautiful, still young face?

Whatever, unless there are unreleased Nirvana recordings lurking in vaults or attics (as was once promised would accompany this release) Unplugged In New York, recorded last November, will have to serve as the group’s epitaph. And this is no bad thing, for stripped of all the noise (unlike Bruce Springsteen, they don’t cheat on the “unplugged” bargain: this is, give or take an electric guitar or two, an acoustic affair), the band sound most moving, possessed of a ragged glory. And stripped of all that noise, it becomes clearer than ever just how much Nirvana owed to less feted Americans such as The Sneakers, dBs and Mitch Easter’s Let’s Active (and, of course, the extremely feted R.E.M.).

Cobain hardly sounds like a man on the edge of despair. His introductions are almost chipper — “I guarantee you I will screw this song up,” he says before strumming into a compelling version of Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ (even better than Lulu’s) and then announcing proudly as the song ends “I didn’t screw it up, did I? Okay, but here’s another one I could screw up…” (‘Penny Royal Tea’: he does screw it up this time: it’s in the wrong key, he can’t make the high notes but nevermind.) The acoustic readings of original songs — ‘About A Girl’, ‘Something In The Way’, ‘Dumb’, ‘All Apologies’, ‘On A Plain’ — are merely efficient (occasionally the sparse trillings are reminiscent of the wretched group America).

It is on some well-chosen cover versions that this toned down Nirvana begin to thrill. On ‘Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam’ (announced thus: “It’s a Christian song. I think… “), Cobain sings with a tender weariness, almost heart-breaking when he goes, “Don’t expect me to die” (cruel irony). Meat Puppets’ ‘Plateau’ is stirring indeed, the best anti-redneck song since The Byrds’ ‘Drug Store Truck Driving Man’; ‘Oh Me’ and ‘Lake Of Fire’ (also written by Meat Puppets’ Curt Kirkwood) are similarly driven and thoroughly wonderful. And then there is Leadbelly’s ‘Where Did You Sleep’ on which Cobain is transformed into the Johnny Cash of “grunge”. Or something.

Given the sometimes perfunctory manner in which he performs his own stuff — although ‘Come As You Are’, splashed in gentle reverb, is marvellously spooked (“No, I don’t have a gun…”) — it’s as if Cobain is somewhat disaffected with the Nirvana legacy. Which, as it turned out, he was. A lot. Unplugged shows that the boy still had much to offer. “It’s better to burn out…?” Is it really?

© Tom HibbertQ, December 1994

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