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Review: Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York Remains a Timeless Musical Document

Much of the power of this set is in the band’s intuitive ability to imbue their songs with new dimensions of subtlety.

4.5

Nirvana
Upon its television debut in December of 1993, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York session was already monumental—intensely intimate and unique among prior episodes of Unplugged, which usually operated as greatest-hits showcases. In the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, however, the band’s performance assumed near-mythical status, airing around the clock in the weeks following the singer’s death and serving several roles for a shocked, grieving fanbase: a portent, memento, and elegy all at once.

Had they never appeared on Unplugged, it’s likely that Nirvana might be perceived in a significantly different light today. They were a ferocious and often unpredictable live act, capable of wreaking mayhem on their instruments and each other while delivering their searing yet melodic brand of punk. The release of MTV Unplugged in New York in November of 1994 provided a full window onto the kinder, gentler Nirvana only hinted at on the band’s three studio albums, and served as the high-water mark for ‘90s alternative music’s ascendance to Important Art just before its descent into self-parodic commerce.

Of course, commerce is alive and well in the 25th anniversary edition of MTV Unplugged in New York, which may be viewed with understandable suspicion by fans long inundated with special editions and live-show unearthings that have effectively wrung Nirvana’s catalog dry. (This year alone has already seen the release of Live at the Paramount and Live and Loud.) But considering MTV Unplugged in New York’s titanic place in rock history, this edition is revelatory for a simple reason: the inclusion of five songs from the rehearsal for the band’s performance that were previously only available on the show’s DVD release.

Over the years myths have grown around MTV Unplugged in New York, a major one claiming that the band was in shambles leading up to the taping of their performance at Sony Music Studios. While the new tracks don’t rewrite what we once knew about the performance, it nevertheless helps reinforce the skin-of-their-teeth story that’s largely been known only in anecdotal form. During the rehearsals, Dave Grohl’s heavy drumming undermined the acoustic sound, especially on rockers like “Come As You Are” and a cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” where his trashing instincts almost overwhelm the rest of the band. Thankfully, Grohl reined in his thundering style after he was offered quieter brush and Hot Rod sticks by Unplugged producer Alex Coletti just before the official performance.

While none of the five new tracks on this reissue are unlistenable, they’re expectedly unpolished and, as evidenced by occasional in-song directives and banter, unfocused and tense. Cobain’s vocals sound strained on “Come As You Are,” while on a cover of the Meat Puppets’s “Plateau,” several guitar licks and back-up vocals from Cris Kirkwood—who, along with brother and Meat Puppets co-member Curt Kirkwood, accompanied Nirvana on three of their own songs—are off-time and over-emphasized. In a sudden burst of inspiration during the televised performance of “Pennyroyal Tea,” Cobain performed the song on his own, and the result was more personal and harrowing than the electric version on 1993’s In Utero. In rehearsal, “Pennyroyal Tea” is undone by Pat Smear’s distracting backup vocals and a guitar played a turgid step lower than the one on the studio recording.

Beyond the fly-on-the-wall rehearsal tracks, the rest of MTV Unplugged in New York remains as it’s always been. The album hasn’t been remastered for this reissue, which is a bit of a shame, but perhaps augmentation works against its raison d’être. Much of the power of this set is in the rawness of Nirvana’s delivery, but especially Cobain’s. It’s also in the mesmerizing spell of the group’s intuitive ability to imbue their songs with new dimensions of subtlety and cast light on their own artistic worldview with several unusual yet impassioned covers, including their towering, chilling take on Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” MTV Unplugged in New York is simply a timeless performance, one all the more impressive for having come together through reserves of musical acumen and sheer guts.

Label: Geffen Release Date: November 1, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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