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Nirvana – Bleach

September 2, 2008

When I first bought Bleach, it came with a sticker on it, a black and white picture of Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and original drummer Chad Channing, with the words “This is Nirvana’s First Album” in the signature Nirvana font. This actually makes some kind of sense in the area of marketing, because most anyone who would buy Bleach has already heard the band’s radio hits, of which Bleach has none, and it almost needs to be spelled out that the album is in fact by Nirvana, the same band that tore down as many barriers and rounded up as many fans as they did within two years after its release.

Bleach shows the band in a much different condition than they are best known for. Instead of the later problems with fame, they had a hard enough time putting bread on the table let alone getting noticed when it was being made. It comes as a surprise to many that an album with as much toil and trouble behind its recording and production as Bleach could be so much less monumental in comparison to Nevermind and In Utero, but the album is actually more “grungy” than most everything else was on the grunge market at the time, and it did do some things that hadn’t been approached before.

Instead of combining melodicism and heavy production like Nevermind and In Utero would later do, Bleach seems to waver back and forth between the two. It is hard to listen to the albums pop pieces, Blew and About a Girl, in context with the rest of the album’s stark heaviness, but in that sense this contrast actually foreshadows some of the band’s later work. Side A is the most consistent and powerful, containing the aforementioned hits as well as two songs worth of scalding guitar heroics, School and the Shocking Blue cover of Love Buzz. Much of the rest of the album is extremely heavy, most times to the point where it is rather silly, and also rather poorly written. There are a couple sludgey songs that are heavily inspired by The Melvins, namely Paper Cuts and Sifting. The rest are fast and heavy, with the verses consisting of uninspired riffing with pockets of memorable choruses in between. Lyrically Bleach goes back and forth between interesting and meaningful vocal melodies to scowling potty humor. In short, Cobain has clearly already learned how to write memorable, meaningful hooks, but doesn’t really know what to do with them.

Two essential tracks from the Bleach sessions that are actually very consistent were not included on the original pressing of the album. The 1991 remastered reissue contains Big Cheese and Downer, two of the better songs from the sessions. It makes little sense that these songs were not included on the original release. Big Cheese is a grimey rocker much in the vein of Love Buzz. Downer is the shortest song present, clocking in at under two minutes, but does more damage than many of the albums less accomplished songs combined, presenting a pessimistic world view as well as some of the band’s most memorable riffs from their early years.

Some of these songs may seem dated or cliche, but in fact this is a very early grunge album that most everyone liked and took cues from upon its release. Although it is undeniably patchy, Nirvana mostly have the right idea, and Bleach is one of the heaviest and most influential early grunge albums as well as a document of an era in music, paving the way for Nevermind two years later.

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