No artist has ever done an “MTV Unplugged” set in one take, except one.
Geffen Records recently released a 25th anniversary edition of the legendary Nirvana live album, “MTV Unplugged In New York.” In it, Nirvana tones down their usual intensity and instead plays an hour’s worth of intimate, often painful, acoustic rock that remains relevant over two decades later. In fact, this may be their best album. Kurt Cobain’s secret is his sincerity.
Along with all the original tracks, the 25th Anniversary edition houses five new rehearsal tapes. You’d have to be a superfan for that to sound even somewhat enticing, but the original album alone makes it worth it. Nirvana was a collective of mature rockers — punks in action, not attitude. With less distortion, “Unplugged” carries on the punk ethic of disobedience. More than half the songs are covers, which historically riled MTV executives, but, in Nirvana’s hands, they come out just right. These aren’t merely covers — this is great, timeless rock music.
On “About A Girl,” Cobain sings with a great and uninterested croak that still carries a beautiful tune. When he starts covering the twangy Meat Puppets — who joined him on stage — on “Plateau” and “Lake of Fire,” he takes on a truly haunting cowpunk lilt.
Although nominally unplugged, the band is obviously electric. The lead guitar slashes through “The Man Who Sold The World,” a David Bowie cover that outpaces the original. Where David Bowie spins an opera, Cobain’s screeching riff turns the song into a ballad of raw evil like Led Zeppelin’s undecadent “Kashmir.”
The best track is the last one: “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” a Lead Belly cover. Cobain slurs like he’s asleep. Suddenly, his voice blasts and breaks past his restraint, cracking like sandpaper. When the song stops, Cobain hits a high note that tears his voice apart and the tension is palpable. Cobain, who publicly abhorred artistry, knew he had done it right.
If there’s any evidence that Nirvana was the last true rock group, this album is it. In the ‘90s, full of shifting genres and alt-rock, the band found a way to combine hardcore punk’s radical abrasion with a poppy, arena rock formalism. Every song is a compressed piece of rock polish. It seems so simple, but the raw performances show it was far from effortless.
“Unplugged” is a legendary performance. It remains shrouded in mystery and full of absurd little moments. The green cardigan he wore during the show just sold for $334,000. The band starts playing “Sweet Home Alabama” at one point. When Cobain introduces his guest Pat Smear, an extremely influential punk guitarist, he calls him a “certified, honorary, punk rocker,” then adds, “But he likes Queen better.”
Nirvana synthesized the wild purity from which rock had come and burned out its excesses with their angular guitars. They rhymed for the love of it. They were having fun. That sentiment is clearest through “Unplugged.” 25 years later, it still hasn’t been topped, and for how amazing it is, perhaps it never will be.
A version of this article appears in the Monday, Nov. 18, 2019, print edition. Email Charles Smith at [email protected]