|Nirvana - Unplugged in New York|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Matt Fink|
|Tuesday, 01 January 2008|
Already legends, far and away the definitive band of the grunge era and the first real incursion of the indie rock movement into the mainstream, Nirvana reached the point of their Unplugged concert with very little to prove. Though their blend of post-hardcore, punk-inflected pop had been percolating in the underground for years, at the time that their Nevermind deposed Michael Jackson from the top of the Billboard Top 40 in 1991, there had never been anything like them on commercial radio. Dark, depressive and intensely cathartic, their music became all the more intriguing when Kurt Cobain revealed himself to be a deeply troubled and self-destructive character, struggling with heroin addiction, overdosing repeatedly, and writing songs that sounded like private suicide notes written for similarly damaged souls. By the time the Seattle trio (then expanded to a quartet with the addition of second guitarist Pat Smear) arrived in New York City in late November of 1993 for their installment of the then-iconic MTV Unplugged series, it was almost unimaginable that a band that had made their name largely on Cobain’s massively-layered fuzz pedals and tortured shrieks could translate their biggest hits to acoustic guitars and hushed vocals. To that end, Nirvana couldn’t have been better advised than to break with the show’s formula entirely, and in the end, that’s exactly what they did.
Released on DVD for the first time, Unplugged in New York is a study in iconoclasm. Wisely steering clear of the songs that simply couldn’t have been performed in a stripped down setting without completely reconstructing them beyond recognition, skipping altogether their breakthrough “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the vividly gory “Heart Shaped Box” and the snarling “In Bloom.” As their sound hinged much on the loud/soft dynamic created by quiet verses and explosive choruses, they wisely chose to rearrange songs that had depended on that device less comprehensively, from the already threadbare “Pennyroyal Tea” and the easily disassembled “Come as You Are.” Though much of the allure of such performances had previously been such stylistic transformations, they made up for it with a series of songs that showcased their less obvious influences, paying tribute to David Bowie with a spot-on cover of “The Man Who Sold the World” and a fragilely-hushed version of the Vaselines’ “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam,” with bassist Krist Novoselic adding some gorgeous (if unfortunately low in the mix) accordion.
Always eager to point out the traces to his indie rock heritage, Cobain’s choice of covers literally relaunched the careers of every band whose material he touched. No one benefited from this better than the Meat Puppets, with shaggy brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood getting to share the stage with Cobain for three tracks, overnight lifting the virtually unknown country punk band from obscurity and setting off a mad scramble among Nirvana fans to track down their back catalog. More than any other moment in the set, here Cobain looks like he’s having fun, free to only sing on the creaky “Plateau,” the serene classic rock balladry of “Oh Me” (deleted in the original broadcast), and the ominous anti-hymn “Lake of Fire.” More than anything, it’s the addition of all those covers that made the album a unique listening experience, arguably making it a legitimate fourth entry into their canon, instead of merely a pleasant curiosity.
Though their rendition of “All Apologies” became to the go-to clip after his suicide, as that song’s dejected mix of regret and helplessness seemed like the perfect summary for a life that was soon to end, it’s actually a cover of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” that closes the set. Arguably the show’s most transcendent moment, with Cobain bringing out the desperation and loneliness of the song’s heartbroken protagonist and providing the set with its final moment of release as he yelps and howls the song’s finale with an almost unsettling intensity.
Musically, the material is simply transcendent, not simply because it offers virtually the only sustained glance at the band’s meditative side but because the performances are so potent. Proving just how exceptional they were when stripped of the fury and power of Dave Grohl’s thunderous drumming and Cobain’s stabbing electric guitar lines, these are songs whose latent vulnerability is only accentuated by such a threadbare setting. Though Cobain’s vocals don’t fare so well on the less forceful songs, often hitting flat notes on the bottom end and cracking on the high ones, such shortcomings only contribute to the overall feeling of immediacy in the set. Further, Grohl’s backing vocals – long an under-recognized element in the band’s sound – are allowed to shine forth more clearly, and the addition of subtle swirls of cello added an enveloping austerity and richness to the otherwise barebones arrangements.
As the performance aired only five months before Cobain’s death, it was all too easy to see it as the last will and testament of an artist who had already determined the end was near. Soft-spoken and self-conscious, he seems distant and disinterested, never knowing which song comes next and even flipping through a leaflet between songs. In retrospect, despite the funereal tone of the music, Cobain doesn’t appear to be in particularly despondent mood. Unshaven and wrapped in a now iconic green cardigan, he’s serious but hardly somber, goofing on “Sweet Home Alabama” and making small asides that largely remain inaudible. Even so, he’s still an amazingly charismatic and entrancing performer, his penetrating stare and disheveled appearance dovetailing perfectly with the bittersweet tone of music that echoes an unsettled state of mind. Whatever the truth, in the days after his death (during which the performance aired incessantly on MTV), it was impossible to hear the songs as being anything but Cobain’s last cry for help, the sound of a man saying goodbye.
Of course, the setting couldn’t have been better prepared for such a final statement. Bathed in a backdrop of warm red curtains and golden shadows, the room is decked out with candles and stargazer lilies that Cobain supposedly wanted to use to make the stage look “like a funeral.” Further, the use of stage level camera angles that often look up at Cobain with his head backlit and shrouded in light give the performance a deifying effect, and the footage never veers away from being anything but quietly reverential. From the hushed intensity of the crowd to the surprisingly unedited breaks between songs, the performance feels much more like a document of recording of a show than a perfectly produced piece of product. Ultimately, this only heightens the sense of urgency in the music.
Had he lived, Kurt Cobain would have turned 40 this year, and the 13 years since his death have done little to dim the intensity of his music. Still, it’s possible that we’ll never be able to hear these songs the way they must have sounded in November of 1993, as it’s difficult to do so without subconsciously tracing over the drama of Cobain’s life. When an artist is gone, you can project whatever you want onto them. They can become a symbol of the excess of the id like Jim Morrison, they can become wounded loners exorcising their demons on stage like Janis Joplin, or, like Cobain, they can become the broken voice of a generation, a Christ-like figure who took on all the hypocrisy and cynicism of an era so you didn’t have to. Today, it’s hard to see him as ever having been just another scruffy kid with a distortion pedal, just another messed up guy who could have been straightened out with some therapy and stability. No, Kurt Cobain is now an immortal, hardly human at all, and he’s not bound by the same mundane realities that hold the rest of us to our everyday existence, a symbol of much more than music for anyone who watched him ascend and crash brilliantly into martyrdom. For anyone who wants to see the last sad chapter of an undeniably compelling story, Unplugged in New York is the confirmation of an icon.
Presented in both Dolby Stereo and 5.1 surround sound, the performance likely sounds better now than you’ve ever heard it before. Still, despite the power of the performances, there are problems in the mix. For one, Cobain’s squeaky guitar is often mixed far too high, as is Novoselic’s ever-present bass. No doubt, Cobain’s ragged strumming adds to the unkempt aura of the performance, but the mix would have benefited from a more balanced representation of the players, in particular the plaintive swirls of cello that are used to add textural depth. Still, such points are largely irrelevant in the performance’s overall effect, as the raw warts-and-all quality adds much to the allure.
As the performance is presented as one unedited 66-minute performance, it’s a self-contained entity that offers few obvious choices for unreleased material. As such, we’re left with a brief documentary in which the show’s production staff shares their recollections of working with the band to set up their appearance, and the memories of a number of fans who were in attendance. And though these insights rarely go much deeper than testaments to the power of the performance, we do learn that Cobain was noticeably nervous about how the audience would receive the material and that MTV feared the show would be a disaster because of the band’s refusal to play their hits and their insistence on bringing the Meat Puppets on stage. Additionally, rehearsal footage of five tracks is added, but there’s very little to learn from the pre-show renditions aside from seeing Cobain look edgy and unsure of himself. Ultimately, the lack of extra features only makes the show seem all the more mythical in nature.