At one point or another, every single person that will read this review at any point in their life has heard the Nirvana mega-hit 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. It was the song that kicked off the wildly popular Nevermind album. It was the reason Nevermind kicked Michael Jackson's Dangerous off the #1 spot atop the Billboard charts, which actually mattered back in 1992. It's the song that Nirvana and Kurt Cobain made their names with, the song that brought the Seattle grunge movement mainstream and the song that revolutionized pop culture as a whole.
It, for a reason we may never know thanks to Kurt Cobain's suicide, was not on the greatest Nirvana recording of them all. That recording is known as MTV Unplugged in New York.
Cobain, and by extension the whole band, accepted this performance while on tour with the Meat Puppets, and this helped inspire Kurt and the band to try something different with their Unplugged appearance. There wasn't a whole lot of Nirvana material planned, the Meat Puppets made an appearance on the show (this caused problems because MTV wanted more recognizable names according to Producer Alex Coletti) and the stage was decorated like a funeral, with stargazer lilies, black candles and a chandelier.
It should be noted that the entire recording of MTV Unplugged in New York, unlike a lot of other artists' appearances before or since, was all done in one take. No cuts, no retakes, nothing. Much in the same sense that Nirvana's first studio album Bleach was done in 30 hours to the cost of $606.17, Unplugged was raw and to the point. It should also be noted the Kurt was never at any point "Unplugged", as his acoustic guitar was running through an amplifier and had effects pedals hidden behind the amp, which itself was disguised as a monitor wedge. So it would seem Unplugged was never actually unplugged. It was in some sense a lie, but it ended up being the best thing the band ever did.
The Nirvana lineup for this particular recording is as follows:
Kurt Cobain: vocals, guitar Chris Novoselic: bass guitar Dave Grohl: drums Pat Smear: guitar
Also joining the band on this performance was cellist Lori Goldston, who was touring with the band at the time of this show.
Unplugged consisted of 14 songs. 8 of those songs were original Nirvana songs. The other 6, however, were covers. They all add up to one of the greatest live recordings ever captured.
The album opens up with thunderous applause from the audience. This is not surprising in the sense that a lot of live albums open with thunderous applause for some reason, but this audience was small. It wasn't thousands, like most are used to when it comes to live recordings, but instead the audience was just a few hundred. After the applause settles, Kurt says, "This is off our first record. Most people don't know it." and then they play 'About a Girl' which is from the album Bleach. 'About a Girl' would go on to become the only single from MTV Unplugged in New York.
The second song, 'Come as You Are' is from the wildly popular Nevermind album (and also available as a download in the Rock Band franchise), and while it wasn't the only song to come from Nevermind that appeared on this live recording, it was the strongest acoustic rendition.
That was followed up by a Vaselines (a Scottish alternative band) song called 'Jesus Doesn't Want Me For a Sunbeam'. The execution of this song felt a little sloppy in a key part towards the end, and why Nirvana would decide to cover a parody of a Christian hymn is baffling to some, but ultimately it's a good cover. It would end up being the first of 4 covered artists on this record.
David Bowie would be next to be covered, as the band then performed 'The Man Who Sold the World'. This is where the effect of Kurt having his guitar run through an amplifier with pedals is most evident. That is why there's the loud, electric-guitar sound during this song. It is the only song that would have this effect used. As custom for this recording, Kurt acknowledged that this was a Bowie song. The song itself tells the same story David tried, but the acoustic recording mixed with Cobain's vocals make the story a much more casual affair.
'Pennyroyal Tea', which Kurt jokingly acknowledged he could screw up, was next. He performed this song solo, playing the entirety of this song by himself and singing. This was at times kept with the tempo of the original, and at other spots seemed slower than the studio album version. The song is mostly about an herbal abortive that doesn't work though there is some other meaning in the song, referring to Cobain's own stomach issues while recording the album that this song came from, In Utero.
The In Utero material continues, with 'Dumb'. It's pretty much a straightforward live acoustic version of the original song with more emotion than the studio version conveyed. It's a good rendition, but as would be the custom for this show, just being "good" doesn't stand out.
Nirvana then changed directions, opting to then perform Nevermind's 'Polly'. A song about a 14-year-old girl that was kidnapped, thrown into the back of a van and escaped to freedom is bound to be emotional, and that's something that Kurt's gravelly voice was always excellent at conveying: raw emotion. The sadness and desperation of the kidnapped girl was something that Cobain's vocals could capitalize on and deliver the emotion. This is typically a heavily emotional song, and it is on this show, but it's not the most emotional song on this night or the best performed. That speaks volumes to the level of quality that this show brings.
'On a Plain' was the next song, from the Nevermind album, and this song doesn't make sense. It didn't on Nevermind, it didn't on the other live recordings, and it doesn't on MTV Unplugged in New York. As the story goes, there were a whole lot of decent parts to a whole lot of songs that Kurt had written, and he felt he couldn't flesh them out. Instead of wasting them, he put them all into one song that makes no sense yet was still a modest success for Nirvana in 1992. It's a good performance, a good showing for the song, but it still makes no sense.
The next song, again from Nevermind, was 'Something in the Way'. This was easily the best, most emotional and rawest of the Nevermind covers. 'Come as You Are' may be the technically better song in execution, but this rendition of this song was more emotional. This would also be the last Nevermind song that Nirvana would play for the night. It was also the second-to-last original Nirvana song of the night.
After 'Something in the Way', Cris and Curt Lockwood of The Meat Puppets came out to play 3 songs. All of these songs are from the Meat Puppets II album. The Meat Puppets' songs weren't particularly well-known by the audience there, particularly the fans that were there to just see Nirvana because they were famous. It would seem as those fans left disappointed, because the band decided prior to taking the stage that they weren't going to play a lot of their more famous songs. The only one that they played was 'Come as You Are', and that was towards the beginning of the show.
That's not to say that the songs meant less to the album, or that they weren't covered in a good and respectful manner, or that they were lacking in emotion. In fact, the opposite is true. 'Plateau' was the first of the three Meat Puppets songs, and it was very well done. The song was fast enough to keep people interested but slow enough to let Cobain's vocals shine in a way that would become commonplace for the rest of the album.
The second Meat Puppets song to be covered was 'Oh, Me', and it was a great cover, particularly the smooth bass tones Chris pulled off for this song. The song was the weakest of the three covers in terms of Kurt's vocals, but it was a strong showing for the rest of both Nirvana and the Meat Puppets. It wasn't a bad performance for Kurt by any stretch, but his later performances on the later covers would be so strong and so overpowering that they made 'Oh, Me' look bad by comparison.
One of those performances would come right after, in the third and final Meat Puppets cover: 'Lake of Fire'. Whether the bands would falter on this one or not would be irrelevant. Kurt Cobain made this song his own. Where so many other songs and artists that cover them simply do just that: cover them... Kurt and Nirvana made these songs theirs, with half the original band there with him. 'Lake of Fire' is an OK song as performed by The Meat Puppets, but it's an amazing song as performed by Nirvana on this night. You can hear the raw emotion when Kurt screeches through the chorus: "Where do bad folks go when they di-ie? They don't go to heaven where the angels fly. They go to a lake of fire and fry. Don't see them again until the Fourth of July."
Coming down from that performance, The Meat Puppets take their leave. "Coming down" is a relative term here, as the final Nirvana original for the evening, 'All Apologies' is a very good song and represents itself very well. It's a strong song, though it would seem that Cobain is reserving his strongest showing for last. It's almost as if anything that repeats itself more than a couple times loses steam. Both "Memoria, memoria" during 'Come as You Are' and "All in all is all we are" during 'All Apologies' is something Cobain and Nirvana lose interest in, almost seeming to want to get it out of the way.
Following this song but preceding the final song, Kurt refers to the writer of this next song as his favorite performer. He also shares the story of someone from the Lead Belly Estate offered to sell him Lead Belly's guitar for $500,000 and how he tried to get David Geffen to personally buy it for him. This leads to the best song on the entire album.
'Where Did You Sleep Last Night' closes out this album, and what a closer it is. No, it wasn't the most technically perfect song of the evening. It also wasn't the longest. It was the most emotional song on the entire album, one that Kurt's vocals fit perfectly. It was a song that the laid-back acoustic nature of the show was a perfect fit for. Even though it's hardly noticed on a live recording, the guitar's strings were hardest hit during this song. The drums' soft smacks meant the most during this song. It was the perfect ending to one of the single best recordings to ever surface. 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night' will forever be the song that defines this album. The shrill sound of Kurt's shrieking of "My Girl! My Girl! Where did you go!?!" will forever be etched in the mind of anyone that experiences this recording.
As a side note, the band was asked to go out and perform a small encore after they went to the back following this song. They declined, thinking there wasn't a way that they could top what they just did. They were right. That song, placed where it was on this set list, with the emotion that everyone in Nirvana conveyed during the performance, was the perfect way to end the greatest Nirvana recording ever and one of the best live recordings of all time.