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 globe in the early nineties as the face of grunge, his vocal performance is still a powerhouse piece of the puzzle.
No better is this seen than with the isolated vocal of not one of his own songs but of Nirvana’s cover of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’—a song they made famous on MTV’s Unplugged.
While the track was originally released by David Bowie, the song’s ubiquitous sound has lent itself to many covers over the years from the far reaches of the musical spectrum. While the debate as to who delivered the best rendition is better left for the back rooms of pubs and clubs, the argument over who recorded the most iconic effort was surely settled a long time ago. Nirvana’s cover of the track is the undoubted winner.
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. Later, the song and the session 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’.” The Starman, ever the lover of any art, added: “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.”
Though Bowie did admit that people thinking that the song is Nirvana’s own does annoy him a little: “Kids that come up afterwards and say, ‘It’s cool you’re doing a Nirvana song.’ And I think, ‘Fuck you, you little tosser!'”
Nirvana’s stripped-back cover was an authentic tribute to the song but also an honest interpretation of the track’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, offering Cobain the chance to perhaps crack open the door to his own feelings of the time.
It naturally fits Cobain’s own paradoxical life, a man with the world at his fingertips so hasty to shove it away. 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’.