THE “unplugged” format, more often utilised to spring-clean a musty back-catalogue than carve out a way forward, provided Kurt Cobain with a much-needed window in his career.
Rebelling against the public’s perception of Grunge, fighting the pressure and media circus that went with his sudden elevation from undergound obscurity to new youth icon, Cobain was engaged in a search for a new sound that allowed him space to develop as writer and performer while remaining faithful to his inner voice.
Unplugged In New York, recorded on November 18, 1993, is a glimpse of that work in progress. Half of it is Cobain’s Nirvana compositions; half significantly chosen cover versions (augmented, as an incentive, by two further tracks cut from the original broadcast). The readings of his most recent songs are almost unbearably painful — petulant, self-mutilating therapy and on-stage attacks in ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ and ‘All Apologies’. Before a cover of David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, Cobain guarantees he’s going to screw it up. He doesn’t, but it’s an overwrought and tortured version of the song, and he’s unable to hold the furious mix of emotion he’s trying to unleash.
But Cobain’s voice, ranging from world-weary dejection to caustic, embittered attack, comes into its own elsewhere — noticeably in the stark ‘On A Plain’, a version of The Vaselines’ ‘Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam’, and a thoughtful ‘Come As You Are’. On a trio of songs from The Meat Puppets’ second album, he’s joined by two members of the Arizona band. His take on their ‘Oh Me’ is beautiful — all concentrated torment and icy wonder. On the closing version of blues giant Leadbelly’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ (“my favourite performer”, he tells the audience) he bears down hard on the simple structure to get at hard, haunting, eerie truths.
With its low-key dirges and feet-dragging wakes, Unplugged is no picnic. It shows a very different side to Nirvana from the one that made them famous. Despite the inevitable downbeat tenor, there is a resolve here, a determination, to alter the whole game-plan — suggesting Cobain’s future may have lain outside the band. Whatever, it just makes his loss appear more profound.
And, sure, it’s hard not to take some of Unplugged as a last will and testament — the personal turmoil that would engulf Cobain in the months ahead, reflected in the songs. For a performer as honest and intolerant of bullshit as Cobain, it would be hard to see how it could be otherwise. 8
© Gavin Martin, Vox, December 1994