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by Michael Gallucci November 1, 2014 1:28 PM
And so it was with Nirvana, especially frontman Kurt Cobain, who deflated their massive popularity every opportunity he got. So when they began work on ‘Nevermind”s follow-up in February 1993, the idea was to record fast, loud, hard and with no rules. And, apparently, no producer either, since Steve Albini, the man who recorded the album, did little to wipe away the music’s abrasiveness.
|Meat Puppets soundcheck.wnyc.org|
And unlike most other bands that sat down for ‘Unplugged’ sessions, Nirvana performed their 14-song set in one take. The result was a stark, scary and scar-revealing portrait of an artist verging on collapse. You can hear it in the primal shakiness of Cobain’s voice, a haunted instrument of torture and unease (he reportedly was going through drug withdrawal at the time). It was a pivotal moment, both for the group and in rock history.
The episode aired on Dec. 16, about a month after it was recorded. Within six months, Cobain was dead. In the weeks after his April 5, 1994 suicide, MTV showed Nirvana’s ‘Unplugged’ almost nonstop. The record company, hoping to cash in on Cobain’s death, enlisted surviving members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic to assemble a live album from the band’s tapes. They weren’t emotionally prepared to sift through their archives, so instead the ‘Unplugged’ program was scheduled for release.
It came out on Nov. 1 and immediately shot to No. 1. ‘About a Girl’ and ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ received extensive airplay. And the somber, cello-assisted version of ‘In Utero”s ‘All Apologies’ that served as ‘MTV Unplugged in New York”s penultimate track became a fitting requiem for Cobain.
Two decades later, the raw, savage music sounds like it’s peeling away at layers of wounds, even without its tragic history in hindsight. No other ‘Unplugged’ outing comes close to the sheer nakedness that Cobain exhibits here. He’s ravaged, torn and frayed; this isn’t a celebratory recording by any means. But it is one of the most primal and cathartic records ever made, even as it cuts into its heart of darkness.