Nirvana: MTV Unplugged in New York (25th Anniversary Edition) (Geffen/UMG) Review | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Sunday, September 19th, 2021  

Nirvana

MTV Unplugged in New York (25th Anniversary Edition)

Geffen/UMG

Dec 30, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


In the fall of 1994, after the shock and grief among fans, fellow artists, and the music media over the death of Kurt Cobain had settled, news about plans for the first posthumous Nirvana release started to trickle out. At one point early on, word was that it would be some kind of double album, and the MTV Unplugged performance would only be part or half of it. Effectively what could have been the first half of that rumored-but-never-released compilation eventually morphed into the live album From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah a couple years later, while Unplugged was given its own stand-alone release that November. Given the album’s role in the band’s legacy, it is hard to imagine that this had not been the plan all along.

The cynical alt-rocker back then (of which there were many, given it was the mid-‘90s) might have said that of course the label needed something out in time for holiday sales, but when you look back at Cobain’s exit fromand the transitional state ofthe rock music world in 1994, that year practically demanded a Nirvana capstone. The performance had been recorded nearly a full year prior and had already been aired plenty on MTV, but with an album release it could rightfully take its place in the band’s relatively small but already legendary catalog. In the way the set unfolds, it feels as if Cobain had somehow planned as much for this single night’s role in the afterlife of Nirvana.

Many of Cobain’s phases, tastes, and contradictions are captured here, to the point where it serves as its own kind of curriculum vitae. That’s clear from the decision to start with “About a Girl,” which in the pre-Bleach days had been the first sign that Nirvana were destined to be more than Melvins acolytes. Cobain’s contrarian rule-skirting then comes to the fore on “Come As You Are” when it becomes clear the guitar is amplified. One of the best unspoken transgressions about MTV Unplugged in New York is that not everything was actually unplugged, but it is always done for the music’s benefit. It is hard to imagine “Come As You Are” without that watery effect, or “The Man Who Sold the World” without the buzz on that guitar line. His rebellion was not without purpose.

Charles R. Cross, in his book Heavier Than Heaven, points out about the Unplugged setlist that “five of the six cover songs mentioned death.” More importantly, though, those covers highlight different stages of Cobain’s life as a music fan. The Vaselines song is a nod to the twee fixations of K Records and the scene in Olympia, Washington, that he spent time in. Not only did the then-obscure choice of David Bowie song serve as a more selective nod to the ‘70s rock of his early childhood than an Aerosmith or Led Zeppelin tune, but if you’re really hunting for Easter eggs you might notice how Bowie wore a dress on the cover of The Man Who Sold the World, and Cobain began his complicated relationship with MTV by wearing that yellow ball gown on Headbanger’s Ball not long after Nevermind came out.

Bringing “the brothers Meat” out for three whole songs accomplished two things that Cobain routinely did throughout the comet burst of his career. For one, it gave a boost to a left-of-the-dial group he admired: Meat Puppets’ alt-rock breakthrough Too High to Die came out in January of 1994, a couple months after the taping. On the other hand, Cobain could take as much as give when it came to his influences, and those three Meat Puppets songs pretty much belong to Nirvana now. You could argue the same for the other three covers here.

The fourth side of this double-LP reissue features rehearsals previously only available on the DVD. Not only do they let the listener in on the group’s pre-show bantering, the rough nature of these run-throughs makes for an enlightening contrast with the near-perfection of what they pulled off in front of the audience. The photography on this reissue is also brighter and sharper than that on the sleeve of the existing single disc vinyl edition. It’s a completist-worthy update to an album no Nirvana fan’s shelf is complete without. (www.nirvana.com)

Author rating: 10/10

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