...has a slightly hollow ring to it.
Sid Smith 2007
Appealing to our sense of romantic nostalgia for a time when music making was about connecting flesh and bone to wood and wire rather than the mains socket, Unplugged has seen many occasions when rock songs stripped of all their sonic frills and amplified heat become reinvented and revelatory. When it works best it tells us something new about both the singer and the song. Neil Young’s Unplugged and his version of “Like A Hurricane” immediately springs to mind.
What do we learn from the gentle stroll-through renditions of “Come As You Are” or “About A Girl” that wasn’t said more successfully on the originals? The muted expression in these campfire run-throughs, as though the band are sensitive about having their playing exposed to the kind of scrutiny the Unplugged format invites, makes them tentative and tepid compared to their fiery forebears. Only “Something In The Way” with added cello gravitas seems to be comfortable in its new arrangement.
With more cutting-edge than a sawmill working double shifts, Nirvana’s clout was always located in their sound as much as the songs themselves, whose essence was utterly defined by their reliance on electricity. As with most of the grunge movement their material is so intrinsically linked to the juice that without it, this stuff has a slightly hollow ring to it.
It’s interesting that they seem to audibly relax and stretch a little when playing other people’s songs–notably on the Meat Puppets’ lamentation “Oh Me” and The Vaselines’ “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam.”
Had Cobain lived this set would be viewed as a mildly entertaining but probably flawed diversion from the real action. Released after his suicide in 1994, it was inevitable that the album was greeted with the kind of fervour that in days gone by might have been accorded to the relics of a martyred Saint. For all the hype though, this set fails to get close to the plugged-in bite that was part and parcel of their strength and appeal.