Release Date: Nov 3, 2009
Record label: Sub Pop
Genre(s): Rock, Alternative
Like many young alts in 91, Nevermind turned my world upside down. But I remember being disappointed after subsequently discovering Bleach, the band's debut. It didn't have Nevermind's hooks, precise quiet/loud dynamics or Butch Vig's glossy production. Years later, it's those attributes that make Bleach so endearing.
The line between cool and uncool has never been less defined: We live in a world where Hall and Oates have become as influential to emergent indie-rockers as Joy Division, and Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" has become as much of a hipster-bar last-call anthem as "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out". And yet, even in an era of omnivorous musical consumption and boundless genre tourism, the sight of a computerized Kurt Cobain belting out Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name" in a recent Guitar Hero 5 demo reel was enough to revert the good/bad taste divide back to 1988 borders. For Nirvana fans, the Guitar Hero scandal was more than just a case of a dead rock-star's visage being exploited for the sake of peddling product.
In 1991, Seattle happened.Music’s underbelly up to that point had begun to surface, cracking the mainstream’s sterile veneer with a vigor that a small release like Bleach could never have predicted. The album should’ve meant nothing: the measly byproduct of $600 and an awkward and poetic presence whose charismatic prowess was likely to have stayed confined to his own hometown. Not that Kurt Cobain couldn’t have made somewhat of a dent in the Michael Azerrad-scribed network of indie bands attempting to mean something, (all of whom had an eye on the prize even if a price was tied to it).
The prevailing line about Bleach, Nirvana’s Sub Pop debut, is that it got A&R reps tumescent from coast to coast, the music equivalent of a free-agent wide receiver catching 95 balls for 13 touchdowns in a contract year. But Bleach isn’t as clear a winner as the alleged label battle that ensued after its release would lead you to believe. Anyone that claims that when they heard Bleach they knew it was by the defining band of the ‘90s is full of shit.
This is one case where the legend really precedes the record itself. Cut for about 600 dollars in Jack Endino's studio over just a matter of days, this captures Nirvana at a formative stage, still indebted to the murk that became known as grunge, yet not quite finding their voice as songwriters. Which isn't to say that they were devoid of original material, since even at this stage Kurt Cobain illustrated signs of his considerable songcraft, particularly on the minor-key ballad "About a Girl" and the dense churn of "Blew.
Hindsight reveals a certain irony to the fact that, as a debut album, 1989’s Bleach effectively shared some common traits with Pearl Jam’s perpetually misappropriated Ten. Not on the surface, of course - musically, they could scarcely be more different - but both records are ultimately frustrated by a certain naivety: where Ten’s self-consciously anthemic stadium karaoke acts as a glorified placeholder for a band not yet having worked out precisely what it is they want to achieve, Bleach’s strangulated snarl is the sound of Kurt Cobain having a pretty clear idea as to his long-term aspirations, but as yet lacking the full toolkit for putting it all together. That said, Nirvana’s inaugural effort never really felt like the paradigm of back catalogue sore thumbs that Ten would eventually prove to be.
It’s amazing to note that it’s now been 20 years since Nirvana released its first album. It only seems like yesterday that the grunge group emerged from the American indie scene to knock Michael Jackson off the top of the Billboard album charts, in the process bringing mass acceptance to the alternative rock genre and underground music in general. Despite this milestone, Sub Pop’s 20th anniversary Deluxe Edition reissue of the band’s debut album Bleach comes off as both unnecessary and oddly muted.
"Bleach recorded in Seattle at Reciprocal Recordings by Jack Endino for $600." Twenty years later, that liner note expanded into a mini picture book, Nirvana's first album now sounds like the United States Mint. Toasty as vinyl, comparable to Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab's CDs of Nevermind (1991) and In Utero (1993), firstborn Bleach reiterates its place not at the front of the line but in between its two older brawlers. Kurdt Kobain, Chris Novoselic, and drummer Chad Channing, as the Aberdeen, Wash., act was originally listed on its debut and remains on this economical deluxe reissue, had both songs (Nevermind) and pure punk brawn (In Utero).
Is it really a hipster’s mentality to state that a band’s earlier/earliest work is their absolute best? You know, there’s always that argument once a band actually “makes it,” that has some people claiming, including yours truly, that an erstwhile album(s) was better than this ‘new one.’ And sometimes, the decision blurs the reality on whether or not this is a subjective or objective opinion. Nevermind, forget the whole subjective vs. objective approach because music is something aesthetic and expressive.