The vocal power of Kurt Cobain is too often overlooked. While his lyricism and attitude are what put him on the bedroom walls of teenagers across the wall in the early nineties, his vocal performance is still a powerhouse piece of the puzzle. No better is this seen than with the isolated vocal of Nirvana’s cover of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’.
While the track was originally released by David Bowie, the track’s ubiquitous sound has lent itself to many covers over the years. While which is best is a debate best left for the pub, the argument over who’s is the most iconic is surely over. Nirvana’s cover of the track as part of their famous MTV Unplugged session.
The song’s eponymous album was ranked as number 45 of Kurt’s favourite albums of all time, and it’s clear he shares an affinity with the track. It became an integral part of the band’s output in those last months before Cobain’s sudden death, forming a large part of their rotation on MTV.
Bowie said of Nirvana’s cover, “I was simply blown away when I found that Kurt Cobain liked my work, and have always wanted to talk to him about his reasons for covering ‘The Man Who Sold the World'” and that “it was a good straight forward rendition and sounded somehow very honest. It would have been nice to have worked with him, but just talking with him would have been real cool”.
It’s hard to argue with the song’s creator. Nirvana’s stripped-back cover was an authentic tribute to the song but also an honest interpretation of the song’s content. It’s a theme which Cobain delivers perfectly with his vocal.
He allows the song’s protagonist to meet his doppelganger and share the odd moment, allowing Cobain to perhaps crack open the door to his own feelings of the time. Perhaps at this moment in his life, Cobain no longer felt like himself but like he was watching a person who looked like him live a life said to be his own. It’s this vulnerability and resignation that resonates so cleanly in this isolated vocal.
It’s a heartbreaking reminder of not only Cobain’s talent but his sad ending and the ripples of grief it would send throughout the musical world. Listen below to Kurt Cobain’s isolated vocal on Nirvana’s cover of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’.