I don’t like Kurt Cobain’s singing voice. I can appreciate his grunge-rock gravel and the vocal strain it takes to keep the high notes in his chest rather than sliding into his head voice, but I don’t like the nasal quality of his singing.
Yet, somehow, not liking his voice did nothing to hinder my enjoyment of Nirvana’s 1993 session on MTV Unplugged.
The band performed a few cross-genre covers as well as their own songs, including “Come As You Are” and “Pennyroyal Tea,” both of whose lyrics juxtapose words and ideas to reveal and comment on hypocrisies in society. In “Pennyroyal Tea,” which Cobain performs solo for Unplugged, he sings the contradictions “I’m anemic royalty / … I’m so tired I can’t sleep.” In both ideas the subject exists within the contradiction: he has a blood cell condition yet is of ‘good’ royal blood; his exhaustion keeps him awake. The clever poeticism of Cobain’s lyrics is thought provoking and satirical, though at times lost in his mumbled wailing.
The moments in between the music were refreshingly lackadaisical. Cobain’s mock-smiles and comically-awkward facial expressions as he twisted and spun in a gray office chair. The band discussing and making up the set right on stage. Even Cobain’s self-deprecating comments: “I guarantee you I will screw this song up.” It was more than just exuding humility and nonchalance; it was a rejection of showmanship and the pedestal of the performer. As cutting and jaded as his lyrics can be, Cobain and bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl were funny, relaxed and—dare I say—down-to-earth. It was as if I’d stumbled upon their garageband rehearsal, helped myself to a seat, and they couldn’t care one way or another.
Listening to Nirvana is not about the quality of Kurt Cobain’s vocals. It’s about the poetry of the lyrics and raw emotion behind the sound. In their final song of the session, Nirvana covered an old American folk song, “In the Pines (Where Did You Sleep Last Night?).” In their slow-tempoed, minor-keyed version, the haunting lyrics are heavy with sorrow and anger when brought to life by Cobain’s crooning. By the end his wail turns to a shredding that makes your heart bleed as much as I imagine his vocal chords were at that time.