The album itself is a paradox. Nirvana, in its short run is hailed as one of the greatest grunge bands to come out of the 90s. It’s sad demise due to the death of Kurt Cobain also skyrocketed fellow band member Dave Grohl to stardom. A few adjectives to describe Nirvana would be loud, raw, distorted, cynical, simplistic, and tragic. While all of these perfectly fit the grunge persona of Nirvana, their live unplugged performance – which although out of their wheelhouse – is a perfect list of songs. (Yes, I know this is an album review, but it’s next to impossible to review the album without referencing the performance it was recorded from.)
What makes this collection of songs so interesting is that none of them are Nirvana’s greatest hits; in fact out of the fourteen songs in the set, three of them are covers. In addition to this, Cobain did not perform many of their most famous songs such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Lithium”. He wanted to highlight their earlier work and also highlight songs from their new album In Utero. Today, MTV is a network that constantly cranks out reality TV shows, but in the past these “Unplugged” sets were their way of providing a concert on television. Famous bands would play their most popular songs just on acoustic guitars. From a viewer standpoint that sounds awesome – I’d give anything to see a few of my favorite bands do that – but to Nirvana that just seemed like a waste of their time which is why they chose almost unknown songs to play. Its even rumored that MTV told Nirvana in discussions about playing the unplugged session that they could play any song, until MTV reneged and suggested they maybe play “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Before looking at the songs themselves, this album as a whole is one of my favorites because it is a physical representation of the refusal to sell out to the music industry and it shows legitimate success.
While I would love to examine and talk about every song on the setlist, I’ll instead just mention three of the best songs. The songs that will be talked about in this article are “The Man Who Sold The World” which was a cover of the original song by David Bowie, “About a Girl”, and lastly “All Apologies”.
To start, “The Man Who Sold The World” isn’t even a Nirvana song, yet it was still added to their set for the show. Not many know why the song was covered and liked by the band but even after the unplugged performance Bowie himself said that he felt that the performance was “heartfelt” and wished that he could have worked with Nirvana. The original version of the song is very techno yet earthy, feeling almost ghostlike with synth effects and a slight echo in Bowie’s vocals. In contrast to the original version of the song, during the live set is just played on guitar with assistance from drums, second guitar, and bass. While it lacks the original flare that Bowie placed upon it, this version of the song forces the listener to hear the pained and confused vocals that posses a very hollow sound. In addition, to this the song isn’t actually “unplugged”. Unsurprisingly, Cobain feared playing his guitar without amps and heavy distortion, so he actually plugged his acoustic electric guitar in for this song. At its core this song is one of the biggest surprises of the album because it supports not only a cover, but also how it goes against Nirvana’s comfortable genre of heavy grunge music.
The next song of the album that I’d like to take a look at is “About A Girl”. Other than the multitude of covers this was probably one of their most obscure songs on the set list. Coming from their first album Bleach, this song was sort of a black sheep because it seemed to have more of a pop flare then just pure grunge. Thus, the song soon fell into obscurity after being overshadowed by many other songs, and also by their platinum album Nevermind. Opening with “this is a song from our first record, not many people own it” goes to show how anonymous this song was, but soon after this performance it soon became a fan favorite overnight. In the unplugged version it is slowed down a bit more allowing for the vocals to shine through even more. Another fun fact is how the unplugged version of this song is actually more popular than the version from Bleach as well.
Lastly, we have “All Apologies” which is considered to be one of the band’s greatest songs. Dedicated to his wife Courtney Love and daughter Frances this song is Cobain’s sense of melody and lyricism showcased. Featuring a repetitive beat and cerebral lines such as “I wish I was like you, easily amused” one can see the depth of Cobain’s depression and feeling. In my opinion this is one of the best songs on the entire album and is a must hear for any music fan. This song is almost hypnotic and sucks the listener in and immerses themselves in Cobain’s feelings and consciousness, which is the greatest thing a musician can do.
This album is a must. That’s all there is to say. It is a defining album for Nirvana, even though it is their last, because of how out of the box amazing it is. When you take a grunge band and make them play an unplugged set, most of the time you would get garbage, but when you take Nirvana and do it you are just served musical genius. From creative covers to playing lesser-known music this live performance seemed like it was going to be a bust, while in reality it is such an important contribution to the rock music community.
Image via Wikimedia.