When Nirvana embarked upon MTV’s Unplugged session last year, no one dreamed it would be their last-ever album. Now, handicapped as it is by the weight of recent history, it nevertheless stands as both a poignant testament and a pointer to a future Nirvana will never know. ANDREW MUELLER pays his respects.
ULTIMATELY, the quality or otherwise of Unplugged In New York is largely irrelevant. Recorded for MTV last November, six months before Kurt Cobain killed himself, it is already assured multi-platinum, mega-mythical status as a last postcard from a talent on a one-way journey to the abyss, a final bow before oblivion’s gate.
The acoustic treatments of the songs only serve to abet the dolorous aura that inevitably shrouds the thing. Stripped of the redemptive euphoria of Cobain’s surging electric guitar, these songs would make for pretty heavy going if their performer was currently alive, well and gearing up to do the rounds of local malls dressed as Santa Claus. As things are, Unplugged is at best gut-twistingly poignant, and often nigh unbearable.
To get the sensible consumer guide stuff out of the way, there are 14 songs on Unplugged. Of the Nirvana tracks, there’s one from Bleach (‘About A Girl’), four from Nevermind (‘Come As You Are’, ‘Polly’, ‘On A Plain’, ‘Something In The Way’) and three from In Utero (‘Pennyroyal Tea’, ‘Dumb’, ‘All Apologies’). The rest is comprised of cover versions. There’s three of Meat Puppets, of all people (‘Plateau’, ‘Oh Me’, ‘Lake Of Fire’), and one each of David Bowie (‘The Man Who Sold The World’), The Vaselines (‘Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam’) and Leadbelly (‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’).
As an entity in and of itself, Unplugged pitches roughly halfway between R.E.M’s Automatic For The People and Big Star guitarist Chris Bell’s I Am The Cosmos, bearing the resigned dignity of the former, the bereft dementia of the latter and the stark honesty of both. This makes Unplugged, as an entity in itself, a fine and unreservedly recommended album, a melancholy masterpiece. However, what stops it short of being called enjoyable, or a work of art that offers the spirit any nourishment, is that we know too much. Far too much.
If they think they’re having fun rounding up a dozen impartial peers for OJ Simpson, where do they reckon they’re going to find a few million record buyers who’ll approach this with anything other than morbid fascination or depressive solidarity? We’ve all been so well-informed of the whole tawdry, tragic, Kurt’n’Courtney soap opera that we cannot help but read its resonances into these songs. What else can now be evoked by the line, “And I swear/That I don’t have a gun” (‘Come As You Are’)? How else can we now imagine the narrator of ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ — performed solo here and something I find almost unendurable — other than as a desolate, disillusioned, ruined icon, contemplating deliverance in the obliteration of his own identity?
If you scrunch your eyes up right and suspend your reflex reactions from a large height, it’s just about possible to recognise that there are some lovely, even definitive readings of Nirvana’s songs on Unplugged. The versions of ‘Polly’, ‘About A Girl’ and ‘All Apologies’ especially benefit from the removal of their protective layers of powerchords.
Of the cover versions, Meat Puppets’ songs are all delivered with a poise and gravitas that has generally eluded their authors (who make a guest appearance), particularly ‘Oh Me’. The Vaselines song is surprisingly plaintive and lovely, although its wryness is inevitably — check the title — discomfitingly ironic. The Leadbelly track is staggering, howled out with paint-stripping ferocity, a notice of what a fine singer Cobain could be, but ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ might even be the most revealing thing on the album, coming across like a self-deprecating confession. Certainly, a recurring theme in Cobain’s public statements, from the interviews around the take-off of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ to his suicide note, was a sense of undeserved guilt, as if, despite his best intentions, it was all some sort of con. If he identified with Bowie’s song, he must surely have been envious of Bowie’s ability to find sanctuary behind masks.
But no, Kurt was Kurt was Kurt, and never more so than here on Unplugged. It being a proper concert, you feel him there, hear him talking between songs, fidgeting with his guitar, with not so much as an overdub distancing the artist from the performance.
Unplugged tosses up some interesting questions about the relationship between our appreciation of art and empathy with our perception of the artists personality. I write as one whose enjoyment of Nirvana’s music was often tempered by the fact that found Cobain-The-Personality monumentally irritating. Not because I subscribe to the fatuous belief that the wealthy and the famous are incapable of genuine unhappiness, but for his interminable daft witterings about the “corporisation” of rock’n’roll. If Cobain-The-Personality has ceased bothering me — and I uncomfortably admit to having listened to his old records much more than I used to since April — it isn’t because I accept his suicide as a defiant statement of his artistic sincerity. It’s because what happened has rendered my complaints as petty as his. All that matters now is that he isn’t here, and all Unplugged can do for the moment is serve as a wracking reminder of that unhappy fact.
The popularity and influence of Nirvana’s four (counting Incesticide) studio albums means that they will always have a life and context other than one defined by the circumstances of Cobain’s demise. Unplugged won’t, or at least not yet. Maybe in a few years it’ll just seem like a great record by any talented and important rock group, as records by Gram Parsons or Joy Division do now. It seems likelier, however, that the shockwaves caused by Kurt’s death haven’t yet subsided. Here was a man who achieved everything a modem rock artist can dare to dream of: revitalised his field, accrued massive success on his own terms, turned a generation of fans inside out. He made it horribly and unequivocally clear that it wasn’t enough and, in so doing, erased the rules of aspiration and robbed an American demographic of its inspiration, as surely as Neil Armstrong might have stolen hope from the baby boomers had his first words on the moon been, “It’s rubbish; no atmosphere.”
It’s not right to be angry, I guess — Kurt did what he thought would hurt least, which is only human. And Unplugged won’t be the last posthumous release. It will be the most affecting, though, because of its immediacy and intimacy. And the most frustrating, because it’s our first glimpse of Nirvana throwing some radical new shapes and we’ll never know where that might have led. It will also remain the hardest to take in a sitting, nagging us with the truth — the one that killed Kurt — that we can run after what we want to be, but we can’t hide from what we are.
A mixed blessing, to say the least.
© Andrew Mueller, Melody Maker, 29 October 1994