Unplugged In New York

Nirvana

Geffen, 1994

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/05/2005

It's dark, with some candles around a stage and a few hundred people in what looks like a university auditorium. A few guitars and a drum set are on the stage, looking innocent, and the crowd is glad to be inside on a chilly November night.

All of a sudden the band that defined grunge walks onto the stage, flashes brief smiles at each other and the audience, and takes their place on wooden stools. The singer, wearing a green cardigan and brushing back stringy blond hair from his eyes, introduces the first song by saying "This is off our first record. Most people don't own it."

Thus begins Unplugged In New Yorkmy_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 , the final album released before said singer Kurt Cobain's suicide five months later. Knowing the history now makes listening to this album much more meaningful - like the third Star Wars prequel, we already know the sad story, but watching it unfold is still emotional every time.

This album meant so much to so many Generation Xers who saw Cobain as their spokesman. I was one of them. Kurt railed against authority and hypocrisy and celebrated disenfranchisement by detaching from the world himself. So it is only fitting the reluctant spokesman for the grunge generation spends his last major concert sitting on a stool, barely looking at the audience and totally focused on his music.

In this acoustic setting, everything is restrained but the passion of the lyrics. Dave Grohl uses brushes on his drums while Pat Smear and Krist Novoselic keep the noise to a minimum. Kurt, however, sings with just as much clenched fury as he can muster where necessary, switching to ironic observer and tortured teenager when necessary. The music of Nirvana never felt more urgent and needed than here, and this album proves their songwriting skills were among the top of the alternative heap.

Half of this album is covers, in another attempt to appear humble. But the covers are just as good as the originals - Bowie's "Man Who Sold the World," in particular, lends a whole new dimension to the 1971 original. The band also invites two of the Meat Puppets on stage for three songs, which turn out to be the best sequence on the album. But the most chilling is the final scream on Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" where Kurt screams the final line "SHIVER" and then pauses before finishing that song. You could cut the emotion with a knife during that silence.

Of course, when Kurt sings "And I swear that I don't have a gun" in the beginning and fades out with "All Apologies" at the end, we are hearing his suicide note. Maybe I helped kill him by asking him to be something he did not want to be. Maybe the drugs and Courtney did the job instead. Whatever your theory is, this is Kurt's final legacy to the world, and the best album Nirvana ever recorded.

Rating: A-

User Rating: A-


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