There's no avoiding it: Listening to Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York (DGC) is an unsettling experience. When the show first aired late last year, it served to reinforce what many of us already knew about Kurt Cobain: that his songs could be stripped down to basics without losing their innate melodies, that he had a fondness for pretty, lugubrious tunes, and that there was an intense, lonely vulnerability lurking behind that scraggly blond hair and those dark eyes. Hunched over his guitar, wearing an old-man cardigan and cracking a few self-deprecating jokes, Cobain didn't exactly seem juiced to be alive that evening. And we hardly expected him to be any other way by then, his unhappiness with fame and success was practically part of the appeal, and that uneasiness drew us to him.
Listening to the album in light of what happened five months after it was taped is, of course, another matter altogether. It isn't merely the jarring effect of hearing Cobain tersely sing, ''And I swear that I don't have a gun,'' in ''Come as You Are.'' People are said to be calmest before they commit suicide. They are serene, at peace with the world and with the decision they've made; the usual day-to-day concerns don't trouble them. MTV Unplugged in New York the first in an inevitable series of Cobain postsuicide albums isn't a suicide note, nor should it be read that way. But both music and singer have a hushed, resigned tranquillity that, given what happened, suggests we all missed something important in what seemed to be a dutiful TV appearance. When Cobain rasps, ''I'm so tired I can't sleep,'' during ''Pennyroyal Tea,'' it's now too easy to think that he wasn't just promoting a song off his new album.
For anyone who hasn't seen the show, which MTV aired endlessly during the weekend of Cobain's suicide, the band skips the hits (save ''Come as You Are'') and concentrates on the numbed-out chamber-grunge numbers tucked away in Nevermind and In Utero, like ''Something in the Way'' and ''Dumb.'' The covers include songs by David Bowie and Scotland's Vaselines, one of many lesser- known alternative bands Nirvana supported and admired. At one point, Cobain invites two thirds of the Meat Puppets on stage and sings three of their slight, fatalistic country-punk songs, and it's refreshing to hear a singer with as distinctive a voice as Cobain's tackle them.
At its best, the overdone Unplugged format has loosened up some of rock's most choreographed performers. (That, and the resurrection of Eric Clapton and of the live album, will be the show's lasting contributions.) Yet, if anything, the music Nirvana played that night was nearly as coiled up as their electric numbers. Cobain's voice wheezed out as if through a tightly clamped throat, and the arrangements, starting with his own scruffy guitar plunking, were as rough-hewn as country blues. On record, the combined effect is ! hypnotic: The slowed-down ''About a Girl,'' a yearning garage-band rocker from Bleach, sounds more urgent than the original, and the rendition of Leadbelly's ''Where Did You Sleep Last Night'' is terrifying, especially when Cobain's voice leaps from a dazed murmur to a phlegmy, mesmerizing screech in the last verse. Beyond inducing a sense of loss for Cobain himself, Unplugged elicits a feeling of musical loss, too: The delicacy and intimacy of these acoustic rearrangements hint at where Nirvana (or at least Cobain, who was said to be frustrated with the limitations of the band) could have gone.
So where does that leave Cobain's legacy? At the recent MTV Video Music Awards, mentions of his name were greeted with respectful but tepid applause, and a memorial video tribute seemed incongruous between the notice-me antics of presenters and performers. The culmination came during the broadcast's self-congratulatory post-show wrap-up, when one of the backstage VJs, Juliette Hohnen, put on her doleful, pensive face for a moment and said, ''I thought it was really nice that we had the whole Nirvana thing. Very sad. But anyway ... '' Is the music business really brushing aside Cobain's memory that fast, or have we just not yet dealt with his death? Probably a little of both. In the meantime, there is this album, on which Kurt Cobain turned his own music into a funeral dirge and, in doing so, perhaps acknowledged to himself for the first time that the songs weren't enough anymore. A