Thursday, 4 October 2012

Nirvana - Unplugged

This is one of those legendary live sets that most people will have probably heard of, even if they're not fans of Nirvana to begin with. I was actually the same way, before I investigated Nirvana properly this was one of the few things about them that I was aware of.  Even when I was talking to my brother a few weeks ago about the performance (he's a Nirvana fan), he even said that it was in heavy rotation on the MTV channel, particularly after Kurt's death and it was one of those shows that when it was on, you almost had to watch it. After all, only the audio of the of the concert had been released at that point. I have to say that the concert is one of the most consistently brilliant live shows I've ever seen by anyone, it's simply that good.

 MTV Unplugged In New York was the first album of Nirvana's to be released posthumously after the death of lead singer Kurt Cobain. Initially in August 1994, an announcement was made that a two disc live compilation called Verse Chorus Verse would be released and would contain various different tracks from live performances from 1989-1994 and the Unplugged set in its entirety. However, given that Kurt's death was still very much fresh in the minds of surviving members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, compiling the album proved to be too emotionally difficult. This lead to the plans being shelved a mere week after the original announcement, although on November 1st of that year, the full Unplugged set was finally released as a standalone album.

Trying to get Nirvana on Unplugged was a difficult task, as the band members showed a dislike for the way many of the artists on the show treated their sets. They felt that they would simply play through their greatest hits except in this case they would merely substitute electric guitars for acoustic ones. Whilst touring with The Meat Puppets though (two members of which join Nirvana in the Unplugged set), Kurt finally accepted. In typical Nirvana fashion though, they opted not to do things the conventional way. Their set is mainly comprised of lesser known material and cover versions - six out of the fourteen tracks in the set are covers. I think the set is all the better for it though, I mean as great as songs like Smells Like Teen Spirit are, its good to see a band showcase their lesser known material, especially because I think Nirvana are one of those bands were the lesser known material is actually superior to their known hits. Speaking of hits, the only one you will find here is Come As You Are which may put some people off listening to the album, but honestly the cover versions here are so good that it really doesn't matter.

I have to say that the first time I watched this I was instantly hooked, to the point were it's been about two months since I originally seen it and I still play at least one song from this set a day. The Man Who Sold The World, which was originally by David Bowie, is honestly one of the best cover versions I have ever heard. I think I actually prefer it to the original, although I still really like the original. Another cover version of equal merit is of Lake of Fire, which was originally by The Meat Puppets. Two members of The Meat Puppets - Cris and Curt Kirkwood - join Nirvana onstage during their rendition of this song and two other Meat Puppet covers in the set. Many of Nirvana's songs here are performed even better than their studio versions I think, particularly Come As You Are. I'm really glad they decided to choose that as the only hit they performed, as Come As You Are is my favorite Nirvana single along with Lithium and it's arrangement really suits the Unplugged style. Having said that, I don't think Lithium would suit an Unplugged style arrangement, because of the usage of dynamic shifts between the verses and the choruses. I just don't see how you could make the performance acoustic yet still convey that part of the song just as effectively as the studio version does.

Another thing that I feel I must mention is the stage design. It was Kurt's own idea that the stage be adorned with things like stargazer lilies and black candles, in his own words "Exactly like a funeral". It gives an extra layer of eeriness to an already very emotional sounding performance I think, seeing as Kurt would be dead within six months of Unplugged. One particularly potent part is in the line in Come As You Are: "And I swear that I don't have a gun". For me, the stage design coupled with Kurts poweful vocals make it simply gut wrenching to listen too. Another highlight for me is the emotional resonance that the listener feels with Kurt's voice for the duration  of the set which really adds an extra dimension to the songs. As much as I love the other Nirvana concerts I've seen because of their highly energetic atmosphere, there's a very organic and consequently timeless quality to Unplugged which makes it work as an album of music and not just a live spectacle.

I have to say that this is simply a must listen of an album if you have any interest in live music. Each song on the album is performed absolutely beautifully and it serves as a sobering reminder of what a loss to music Kurt was. It's also one of the most acclaimed albums I have ever seen on Amazon US: it has a staggering average of five (yes, five) stars out of 454 reviews. Listening to the album, its hard to say its not justified. Honestly, the only downside for me for this performance was that it it flies in whilst watching it I found. It's absolutely imperative to remember that there are no pyrotechnics or costume changes here. The performance earns the praise it does through the music and the music alone. Indeed, there are some things in life that get elevated to legendary status through hype, but every so often something gets elevated to such status simply because they deserve it on merit. This Unplugged set (and Nirvana as a whole) are most definitely the latter. I've never concluded any post with the following statement but this really does warrant it: it's quite simply perfection from beginning to end.

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