Flashback: Sinéad O'Connor covers Nirvana's "All Apologies" in 1995
This is Flashback, where we’re reminiscing about some of the most iconic and obscure moments in alt-rock history. This week, we’re looking at Sinéad O’Connor’s haunting cover of Nirvana’s grunge anthem “All Apologies,” a year after Kurt Cobain’s death.
In the days following Sinéad O’Connor’s death — snippets, soundbites, and memories from the Irish singer’s life have circulated the internet, dusting off the heirlooms we’ve collected in our cobwebbed attics. As we hit play on deep cuts we may have forgotten about, or flip through photos we’ve never seen, we get to once again revel in the fierce vitality of an artist who defied rules and conformity.
But one video in particular that has made its internet rounds, holds a unique piece of history that feels eerily sad and familiar. It’s O’Connor’s gentle cover of Nirvana’s “All Apologies” from the band’s third album, In Utero.
At its face, it’s a stunning acoustic ballad — softer and more halting than its grunge predecessor — nestled in O’Connor’s fourth studio album Universal Mother. The song had a brief resurgence in 2019, when it appeared on the second episode of Big Little Lies’ second season, but the haunting cut has a deeper history.
The track was released just months after the song’s composer, Kurt Cobain, died from a self-inflicted shotgun to the head. Releasing a version of the Nirvana song soon after Cobain’s suicide would have likely been a dicey idea at the time. The lyrics, brimming with self-loathing and regret, hold the aching story of a man who’s let down his family. The desperate war-cry foretells what would eventually unfold. In the wake of his death, to touch this sensitive landmine would be precarious, at best.
But O’Connor’s delicate take on “All Apologies” is spellbinding. Her hushed vocals coat the acoustic guitar in soft gauze until it barely registers. Spare, tender, and stripped-down, the song's gentle delivery proved that she was a deserved emissary of Cobain's penned grief.
To O'Connor, Cobain "represented a massive amount of people who were really kind of invisible and unheard, who had a lot of pain, a lot of stuff that needed to be heard." While she has never said whether her cover was intended purely as a tribute to the late 27-year-old, or if it was already in the works — chances are, the capricious Irish singer felt an unavoidable kinship. Like Cobain, O’Connor struggled throughout her career with mental health and the pressures of success. Both were unlikely pop stars who never wanted its sparkling title.
In 1995, a year after O’Connor’s rendition of the song was released, she promoted the record with an appearance on Dutch TV where she performed the Nirvana cover. It's an ethereal performance that showcases the Irish singer's striking vocals, even when stripped back to a breathy whisper.
The haunting beauty of her evocative performance rang bittersweet to all who loved and remembered Cobain. As we grapple with O’Connor’s death, nearly three decades after the iconic frontman's passing, the feeling is familiar, bizarre, and, ultimately, just as painful.
Check out their live performance of the song below.