Hey guys sorry for the delay. This past week has been nonstop and very enjoyable but I haven't had time to right anything. Normal blogs will resume monday. For now here's something old but good. Enjoy!
By now we all know the story. Kurt Cobain, an extremely talented musician with a history of drug abuse and a painful stomach ulcer, took his own life in his family’s home. Shortly before the singers death however, Nirvana finally agreed to perform on this program. In many ways though, and in my opinion, it’s easily the best, most refined set ever to appear as an “Unplugged.” Nirvana was always destined to be one of the most important bands of the decade, but the fact that they were able to transform and present their music in a way that people hadn’t heard before, and that it was the last big thing they did before his death, makes this unplugged session super amazing, and ultimately the best in the whole series.
They start the set with two medium-sized hits, “About a Girl,” and “Come as you Are.” When you look back at the choices of songs, and how rare they all are, it’s a shock that MTV even allowed them to perform that set list. No where did we see “Smell Like Teen Spirit,” or “Heart Shaped Box.” Instead, they did the smart thing and picked the songs that best went with the format of the show. “Come as you Are,” probably the best known song at the time on the set list, goes so well with the format of the program that it’s easy to like this version over the “Nevermind” recording.
As my ex always pointed out, I’m really fucking old(I’m only 32), so of course I was in my teen angst phase when this released to the world. It always resonated with me so much. It’s has a real ethereal, choral component to it, and it’s the closest an “Unplugged” ever came to chamber music for the masses. Everything works well here. From the transition of the songs, to the incredible honesty portrayed, to the way the drums had suddenly changed and Grohl had found a way to bring finesse to a group of songs that were normally anything but.
It’s also worth noting just how good the covers on this record are. Listening to it now, you can tell they really thought hard about what songs would be showcased, and all of them fit perfectly like a glove. The set list, at 14 songs, is nearly half covers. That’s what is still so great about the Nirvana legacy. They didn’t give a fuck. And they weren’t even well-known covers for the most part. Aside from the blisteringly brilliant version of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” all the other songs were by lesser known acts like the Meat Puppets (who performed three songs with the band during the show), Leadbelly, and the Vaselines. This is also the show that Lori Goldston and Pat Smear brought what they had been doing on the recent In Utero tour to a televised audience. And let me tell you, the added texture and sound from those two help tremendously.
“The Man Who Sold the World,” and the presentation here, make the song an unreal cover, but the context of what we now know happened mere months after that put it in a different, more sorrowful place. The song is amazing, and for my money, it’s one of the better covers of all time, and easily the best cover on the album.
Looking back though, these songs are deeply depressing and worrisome. So many of them represent sadness, and general contempt for humanity, at least from my point of view. Nirvana, and Cobain as an artist in general, weren’t really known for happy uplifting songs, but even so, the songs on the record are all super depressing in one way or another. However, that’s not to say the songs don’t shine through. “Dumb,” “Polly,” “On A Plain,” and the tense, cold imagery of “Something in the Way” make the middle section of the performance its most emotionally charged among the original content the band chose to present here, and it’s also these songs where you feel like the band starts really getting a groove for the show. Unlike every other performance in the “Unplugged” canon, the 14 song set was performed in a single take. I remember hearing that Neil Young’s performance was recorded over many hours, with Young doing songs multiple times. Here though, they gradually chip away at the list of songs, and on “Something in the Way,” everything really starts to work to their benefit. Something, possibly the saddest song in all of Nirvana’s catalog, showcases the uncertainty in Cobain’s emotions, and brings to the forefront the many emotions he must have been going through at the time. He was clearly a troubled man, and the band was on the brink of ending(although not in the way we all suspected), and he was also going through heavy heroin withdrawals during the taping of the show, which makes it even more incredible that this came out so beautiful and poetic.
This is where it get’s really interesting though. At the time they were on tour with the Meat Puppets. A band with modest success in the 90’s but a band that never really caught on in a big way. The band chose to bring the band up for three songs, and even though I have still never heard the original versions of these songs, the versions here are quite good. “Plateau,” which has a killer groove for a guitar part, was also a personal choice Cobain wanted to play. He knew that the high pitch of the vocals didn’t lend themselves to his vocal style, but he wanted to perform it for that exact reason. Even near the end of his career, and life, he wanted to push himself to try something out of his comfort zone, and for the better, it works.
Of the two other Meat Puppet songs, “Lake of Fire” is the better song, and it’s always been one of my more popular tracks on the record. “Oh Me” is the other one. “Lake of Fire” has some of the best visuals when it comes to lyrics, and it’s quite an epic song about struggling for the good of all humanity. At this point also, seven people have all been on stage collaborating, which was also a first as far as I know for any Unplugged show.
The record then gets super real and honest with the last two tracks. Number thirteen on the album, “All Apologies,” completely blows the original version out of the water, and is easily the best song on the whole fucking thing. It was always a great song, but in this light it transforms to a slow burn up until the chorus hits and the sunlight presents itself in a beautiful, but ominous haze. The only downside of the album is that it’s 14 songs. In the end though, it’s a solid choice of songs, and in the end I’d rather have 14 great songs than 20 songs or more where you only gravitate to a few, so yeah.
The ending song, the tragic, and emotional conclusion to this album, “Where did you Sleep Last Night,” brings all the pain and honestly to a somewhat uncomfortable ending, but for this band, and where they were at the time, it’s sadly appropriate. The power in the cords, and the overall instrumentation are second to none, and as we navigate down the road of the song, the screaming on Cobain’s part really makes the song resonate in an ultimately powerful way. It’s a brilliant end, but also a sad reminder that this was the last time we were to ever hear this extremely important band play a set of music, and that the set was easily one of the most valuable in their whole career as the band known as Nirvana.
Landon Murray is a published writer and an avid lover of music, books and films. He's also a lover of the New Orleans Saints. He was born in 1982 and has a chainsaw tattoo on his arm.
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