Probably every non-native English speaking music listener has a moment when s/he stops blurting out nonsense that sounds like his favourite tunes and starts actually speaking the language, not necessarily understanding the lyrics fully or even wanting to, but finally managing to distinguish words and phrases without them sounding like alphabet soup. For me this happened around the age of 10 in the soaring heights of boy band craze, and was (luckily) followed by the next step towards conscious listening, teenage gloom. To me that meant only one thing, grunge. But what if the whole downer aesthetic was exactly what you needed, but was missing the final quasi-poetical edge? Enter MTV Unplugged.
What is more heart wrenching than Courtney Love singing about female disposability and self consciousness during Hole’s acoustic set? Or Eddie Vedder grunting and cracking his voice at the end of Black with a clearly restless band almost hopping off the standard Unplugged stools? Nirvana? Don’t even go there. Drapes, candles, lilies, frizzy hair and jangly acoustic guitars? Just try not to cry*. Yet the Unplugged concert I keep returning to is the least dramatic among the grunge era’s series, namely that of Alice in Chains. While Hole, Pearl Jam and Nirvana where pretty easy to translate into an acoustic frame, Alice in Chains (arguably the heaviest outfit in the grunge pantheon) clearly struggles with the format. While trying to manage their songs after a 3 year long break and in a completely eerie environment, Layne Staley and co. completely annihilate your lust for life and crack silly jokes in between performances. Jerry Cantrell complains that his ass is getting hot from being filmed, Mike Inez’ bass mocks Metallica’s fresh haircuts (Friends don’t let friends get friends haircuts) and they play the intro to Enter Sandman after Layne announces that they will break into an LL Cool J video.
But then, there are the songs. Badly fretted notes, sloppy chords and weaker links (No excuses, Got Me Wrong, Over Now) aside, the material is simply stellar. Nutshell, as an extended introduction sets the depressing tone for all that is to come, but and turns a little towards some kind of light in the bitter sweet Brother. Sludge Factory, Down In A Hole and Angry Chair release all possible rage while still wallowing in self pity and the show quietly dies out with Frogs and Killer is me. While being just as self loathing, nihilistic and just terribly, terribly sad, Alice in Chains’ Unplugged goes above Nirvana & co’s by not indulging into weepiness for too long and showing an ability for self-irony at exactly the right moment so as to not become completely pitiful. At its heart, this unplugged session is still about misery and has the specifically ‘90s kind of depression, but unlike the others mentioned, it doesn’t become an instant period piece when seen today. Admittedly, Layne’s pink hair and sunglasses show a knack for affectation but they do not exceed the quite high ceiling of emotionality imposed by the format, and Alice In Chains Unplugged is one of the rarer instances of the show where viewer’s indulgence for pretentious sentimentality is asked for in moderate amounts. Ugly up your Sunday or revel in nostalgia, either way do it in the dark, alone.