Unplugged: Nirvana 20 years ago

I’ve never been a fan of posthumous nor live albums.

Monstrosities such as Led Zeppelin’s Coda and Queen’s Made in Heaven remind me time and again how incomplete material, bad production, and desperate attempts for cash-grabs render some music utterly unlistenable. Artists such as Tupac and Sublime have released some exceptions to this trend of horrible post-mortem music; however, living in a world where John Lennon’s Milk and Honey exists, I’ll continue to hate on posthumous work and Yoko Ono.

Then there are live albums. Don’t get me wrong: the issue isn’t the quality, but instead the lack of excitement. There’s a clear contrast between witnessing a band live and sitting down with an iPod sans the stage and effects. I feel cheated when listening to The Who’s Live at Leeds. A live and posthumous album is a nightmare equal to Madonna’s or Justin Timberlake’s film career. But Nirvana didn’t make me cringe with their Unplugged in New York. More accurately, the album was incredible.

There is a metaphorical phrase which perfectly encapsulates Unplugged: a swan song. This term originates from an ancient Greek belief that a legendary song is sung by every swan anticipating its imminent death. Nowadays, the expression describes a final performance, gesture, and/or action. Unplugged was recorded in front of a live audience on November 13th, 1993, which was four months, three weeks, and two days before the band’s frontman Kurt Cobain’s suicide. It was his last memorable presentation.

Everything preceding the performance foretold a terrible outcome. The producers were unhappy with the setlist, the rehearsals were awful, and Cobain was suffering from depression and heroin withdrawal. Nirvana had a reputation for being a loud, unapologetic, and destructive band, so few would’ve predicted that Cobain would hold an acoustic guitar rather than smash an electric one onstage. The band knew that the performance would either be great or catastrophic.

Despite performing their less popular material and many cover songs, the audience loved their show. Songs such as “The Man Who Sold the World,” “Something in the Way,” “All Apologies,” and “Come As You Are” struck audiences with their emotional depth and stunning quality. Kurt Cobain’s infamous swan song was the closer, a Lead Belly cover called “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”

The raw power and delivery make “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” one of the best live performances I’ve ever heard. Cobain, an icon of the 90’s, screams the latter half of the song, exposing a more vulnerable side of himself to the public. Sung by a guy who’d dodge the press, fall into addiction and finally write a suicide note, it feels particularly haunting.

With lilies surrounding the edges of the stage and burning candles everywhere, the set design is disturbing, too, as it augurs Cobain’s death. The producer asked Cobain, who requested these stage decorations, whether it was supposed to look like a funeral. He answered the question affirmatively.

When the show ended, Cobain refused an encore. He probably knew he couldn’t top his performance, and thus had no desire to take it further. Unplugged isn’t just a posthumous live album. It’s also Kurt Cobain’s epitaph. And that’s something worthy of respect.