Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York was released in November of 1994. The legendary live album was recorded one year earlier at Sony Studios in New York on November 18th, 1993, and included a surprising setlist of mainly lesser-known Nirvana songs and obscure covers of songs by The Vaselines, David Bowie, Meat Puppets, and Lead Belly.
MTV was concerned about the lack of hit songs Nirvana proposed to play in their set and Cobain was wracked with nerves, appearing less than thrilled during the pre-show rehearsals. But it was that tension framing the performance that made it so captivating, giving way to one of both the band's and the network's most essential recordings. MTV Unplugged In New York was released just a few months after the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994 and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. It went on to go quintuple platinum in the US and won a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album in 1996.
Nirvana | 'Come As You Are' [MTV Unplugged]
“There was no joking, no smiles, no fun coming from him,” MTV production manager Jeff Mason recalled of Cobain in Charles R Cross’ biography, Heavier Than Heaven. “Therefore, everyone was more than a little concerned about the performance.”
However, when Nirvana hit the MTV stage for real on 18 November 1993, the set –decorated with stargazer lilies, black candles, and a crystal chandelier – took on the eerie resemblance of a funeral scene but once the cameras were rolling, Cobain’s mesmerising performance was entirely life-affirming.
Nirvana | 'About A Girl' [MTV Unplugged]
One of the more surprising moments of the captivating event was the band’s broken-down rendition of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World. In retrospect, it's easy to see the similarities in the purity of Bowie’s and Cobain’s artistic commitment, but in 1994 it was one of the most unlikely pairings imaginable. The opening riff blares like a siren, announcing Kurt’s raw delivery that truly seems to embody the underlying darkness lurking in Bowie’s glam arrangement – so much so, it likely swayed fans of both artists to see them in a different light.
Nirvana | 'The Man Who Sold The World' [MTV Unplugged]
Kurt Cobain, however, saved the performance’s most jaw-dropping moment for the final song of the evening, a cover of the traditional folk tune Where Did You Sleep Last Night?. Working from Lead Belly’s arrangement, Kurt sings with spine-chilling emotion. The melancholy march builds and builds until his voice cracks, shredding the word ‘shiver’ over the final chorus. The whole performance takes on a riveting, otherworldly quality; all at once tortured, fearless, wildly emotional, and completely in control.
Nirvana | 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night?'
Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York remains a timeless musical document. It’s a powerful reminder that behind the band’s ethereal wall-of-sound charm was a masterful and intuitive ability to imbue their songs with dimensions of subtlety that we’re still unwrapping nearly three decades on.
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