I will shiver…
Nirvana seemed to be a band who constantly toiled under a grey sky. Maybe this is because they are inseparable from the entity of Kurt Cobain, whose misery is well documented. But I think this impression also has a lot to do with how even at its most aggressive, their music isn’t empowering; it is truly malcontent. Whenever I put MTV Unplugged in New York on (and then invariably on repeat), it conjures up images of lonely narrators, empty plateaus and long dark nights. Evidently then, it’s a sombre listen. Even trying to assess this album disassociated from its context (as far as that is possible) and strictly through musical standards, I think, if only subconsciously, I will always hear this album as Cobain’s goodbye, the vocals simultaneously lethargic and agonised, too far gone to care, too far gone to even plug in (for the most part).
By the first chorus of About A Girl, it’s immediately obvious that playing acoustically exacerbates Nirvana’s tired, world–weary tone. Appropriately then, although not as immersive as the original, and not in grasp of its rage, the unplugged version of Come As You Are possesses its own poignancy. The guitar solo is no longer a whirlpool of abandonment, screaming out four notes on repeat, but a resigned, sighing melody with only the care to move between said four notes.
It quickly becomes obvious that loneliness looms over this album. Dumb has lyrics like ‘My heart is broke/But I have some glue’ and ‘I’m not like them/But I can pretend’, with a deep and brooding bass line and a woeful cello in the chorus. Likewise, Something In The Way uses the cello’s doleful timbre to its full effect, making it a real head–in–hands song, building on the wonderful image of ‘Underneath the bridge/the tarp has sprung a leak’. Similarly, there is a restless, dissatisfied feel to Meat Puppets cover Plateau, with its slow–nodding, disquieting, oozy riff. Closing tracking Where Did You Sleep Last Night rumbles and churns, anger ceaselessly building as a blues horror story is recounted. The strings really add a wounded, malcontent, I’m going to do something crazy vibe, and that’s before Cobain starts screaming, ending on ‘I will shiver/the whole/night through’.
When it’s not dominated by loneliness, the mood of the album still doesn’t stray too far from the negative end of the emotional spectrum. During Polly Cobain sounds tired, telling a stark story of abuse with the drums barely there, and whilst On A Plain is more lively, it’s still minor, being lyrically concerned with settling for new lows, with two sides to the declaration in the chorus ‘I’m on a plain/I can’t complain’. Even though Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam would almost sound cheery if it wasn’t for the morose vocals, with an accordion singing away, it is still about rejection and detachment. This atypical choice of covers continues into the fourth number, David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World. Despite starting out with a bit of a slacker vibe, with Cobain nonchalantly remarking ‘I guarantee you I will screw this song up’, the lyrics have a haunted, poetic quality; ‘I laughed and shook his hand/And made my way back home/I searched for form and land/For years and years I roamed’. Although the music has never really excited me, I think this cover suits Nirvana, because of its undercurrent of loneliness and soul–searching. In contrast, another Meat Puppets cover, Lake Of Fire, is snarling and unfriendly, dispensing scowling Biblical judgement; again, as great as the original is, in acoustic format, it possesses a bareness which draws attention to its gothic qualities.
Whilst trying to figure out what makes this album so well suited to the cold and to a sense of subdued life, it occurred to me that a connection exists between winter and acoustic music. Both possess a primal element, and, for lack of a better phrase, suggest a return to basics. When there is no electricity, when the act of creating music needs to be free from distraction, when the world needs to be left behind, the acoustic is there. Listening to this album outside, in dead woods, under grey skies, through cold waters, it told me that we walk alone.