Nirvana’s unplugged album has reached a legendary status. Few knew that in a few months Kurt Cobain would be dead and the sadness he brought to the stage when the album was recorded was much deeper than anyone could imagine. Whether you believe Cobain was responsible for ending his life or not does not matter. I believe Cobain was trying to say something with the song selection and the order they were in. I believe Cobain was trying to tell us his life’s story.
Song One: “About A Girl” Nirvana Original
“About A Girl” is without even reaching deep, a perfect song to begin this album with. The song was originally done by the band and it comes from their first album. “About A Girl” defines beginnings. This song was selected as the first because of the innocence to it, like the innocence of a child. “About A Girl” is a love song, but not in the traditional sense. There is no sex involved. There are no words about continuing to love. The song is about wanting to love. I always took this song to be more about a first crush than anything else, or at the very least young love. This song represents the potential for happiness that we all have when we are born.
Song Two: “Come As You Are” Nirvana Original
Another original song by the band, “Come As You Are” represents the beginning of seeing the faults in the world. The song is essentially about acceptance, specifically accepting others and not having it returned. I classify this song as a continuation of the innocence phase of the album. I think at a young age Cobain realized how cruel the world was. “Come As You Are” is a song about trying to send out an olive branch and the world not accepting.
Song Three: “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam” Cover of The Vaselines
“Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam” is the response to Cobain’s offer to “Come As You Are.” Cobain had offered to accept everything from others, but because he does not follow the rules of, in this case religion, he is shunned at an early age. No matter how good and loving you are, if you do not follow all of the rules of Christianity then it does not matter. Jesus will not love you unless you love him and do what he says.
Song Four: “The Man Who Sold the World” Cover of David Bowie
By this point in the story, Cobain has begun to battle with the world. Taking the song to its literal point, he decides to sell it away because he has no use for it. Things started off having the potential to be good (About A Girl), peace was offered (Come As You Are), and then he was rejected (Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam). Fed up, Cobain turns his back to everything. He becomes the man who sold the world.
Song Five: “Pennyroyal Tea” Nirvana Original
To understand this song and its meaning to the story, you have to know what Pennyroyal Tea is. Pennyroyal Tea is an herbal abortion drink. Essentially, Cobain is saying he does not want to bring a child into this world, the same one he sold because he has given up on it. Some of these are simpler than others.
Song Six: “Dumb” Nirvana Original
“Dumb” is about self-doubt. Rarely does an actual dumb person admit that they are unintelligent. To be able to say those words is heartbreaking. Why is he dumb? It can be anything from the fact it took him so long to realize how bad the world was to still not having things quite figured out. Most of all, it’s about hating yourself, something Cobain did well. There is also the possibility that Cobain only thinks he is dumb because he feels different. Cobain was an intelligent enough person when he could stay clean. Taking this song sarcastically may be the way to look at it.
Song Seven: “Polly” Nirvana Original
The song “Polly” is about a rape and it’s hard to really think any differently at any point. What I believe this song’s placement and usage says is that it’s impossible to change the rest of the world. You can sell the world and you can admit that you do not know everything. You can even stop bringing new life into it. Still, people are going to do bad things to each other. “Polly” is not a deep song. Its purpose is a reminder of the atrocities we have to deal with.
Song Eight: “On A Plain” Nirvana Original
“On A Plain” is one of the few upbeat songs on the album. The big thing with this one comes from the chorus, “Love myself better than you/Know it’s wrong so what should I do?” I have always been a fan of those words. The fragmentation makes it so they can either mean he loves himself more than anyone else does which makes him selfish, or it is resentment that he loves himself more than the person he is speaking to after expecting them to love him more. After this comes the “I’m on a plain/I can’t complain” line. This to me feels like acceptance of the evil in the world. A plain is flat and ongoing. Cobain is happy that at least it’s not going down so he cannot complain. In his eyes, leave it alone because it could always be worse.
Song Nine: “Something in the Way” Nirvana Original
One of the more depressing songs Nirvana put out was “Something in the Way.” The title explains it well and coming after “On A Plain” says even more. At the “On A Plain” point in the story, Cobain tries to accept the world for what it is and just be happy. Of course, something is in the way. Empathy is controlling and when you have too much of it, happiness is impossible. The song itself means more. The line “It’s okay to eat fish ’cause they don’t have any feelings” could in this case potentially mean that it is okay to hurt those weaker than you, the fish. Without getting too into it, the placement of this song says obstacles are always in the way.
Song Ten: “Plateau” Cover of Meat Puppets
The previous two songs are about an emotional struggle. “On A Plain” is about a high while “Something in the Way” is about the low. Plateau is about finding both of these points in life, more so happiness and realizing things will never get back there again. As this song comes toward the end, it represents the plateaus in our own lives. The song lyrics suggest searching for the plateau, possibly inferring that to Cobain it has not yet been reached because things have to be better than the best he has experienced.
Song Eleven: “Oh, Me” Cover of Meat Puppets
At first glance the song title may look like an embarrassment, like if you realized you made a small mistake you may say “Oh, Me!” The entire feel of the song is madly depressing and looking over the lyrics, it’s obvious that whatever is meant by this, it’s not good.
“I can’t see the end of me
My whole expanse I cannot see
I formulate infinity
Stored deep inside me”
-From Oh, Me
As many of the previous songs hinted at, there seems to be a real search going on here for answers. Even when looking as deep within as he can, he still cannot see what he was looking for.
Song Twelve: “Lake of Fire” Cover of Meat Puppets
My perspective on this song to fit with the theme of the story is hell on earth. Only the second song with a religious theme, “Lake of Fire” represents repercussions of being a bad person. The placement of this song near the end is a man, Cobain in this instance since they are all from his perspective, doubting whether or not he will be rewarded or punished in the afterlife. Furthermore, the lyrics make mention of evil conquering in this life and refer back to the idea that they will not be punished until after they die. This matches the consistency of injustice in the story told throughout the album.
Song Thirteen: “All Apologies” Nirvana Original
I always found “All Apologies” to be the saddest song on the album for what it means. Cobain is apologizing for everything and as the lyrics suggest, taking all of the blame. A common theme throughout the fourteen song album is control. Cobain tries to take control of his life. He tries to be a good person in the beginning. He tries to forgive. He tries to see things the other way. He tries to deny the evil. He tries to fix the problems. One man cannot do this alone and because of that he feels at fault. Saddest of all, Cobain is apologizing for ever existing.
Song Fourteen: “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Cover of Lead Belly
The way this song was belted out by a teary-eyed Cobain nearing the end says more than anything else. To fit the story, this final song on the album is either Cobain asking for confirmation about all of the horrors he believed about the world. Cobain is asking a female companion if she’s cheating on him and he wants to know once and for all with whom she has betrayed him with. This is the acceptance phase, the final one. Throughout the album he tried pushing problems to the side, fixing them, or denying them completely. Now he knows even the woman he loves is capable of turning on him. Many have speculated this was Cobain talking to wife Courtney Love. True or not, it finishes the album’s story letting us know the worst thing in life is when those we love most abandon us.