Happy 30th Anniversary to Nirvana’s debut album Bleach, originally released June 15, 1989.
Released by Sub Pop Records in June 1989, Nirvana’s debut album Bleach was recorded for only $606, a frugal sum for the band comprised of vocalist and guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Chad Channing. Although listed as a second guitarist, Jack Everman did not contribute to the record, although he did pay for the recording at Reciprocal Recording Studio in Seattle and played live with the band for a short period of time. Despite its indie label origins, Bleach has sold over two million copies worldwide and still remains Sub Pop’s best-selling release.
As many people did, I experienced Nirvana’s Bleach a number of years after its original release. When Nevermind landed in 1991 and brought the attention of Grunge to the masses the idea that there was an embryonic version of the band recorded and released was certainly intriguing to me. The version of Nirvana served up by Nevermind was of a punk band with a good ear for a pop hook and lyrics that spoke to a generation. Songs such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come As You Are” captured the zeitgeist, the idea that the youth of the day could and should be satisfied with their lot in the neoliberal landscape. Of course the disenfranchised teenager could only muster a shrug and a mumble.
Although younger than most listeners to Nirvana, and a little late coming to Nevermind, it had spoken to me and I needed to hear more from this band. But upon first listen to Bleach, it was hard to figure it all out. The pop magnificence that was heard on Nevermind (and it is essentially a pop record) was buried beneath several layers of sludge. The Cobain harmonies were mostly absent and all that seemed present were the screams, howls and yelps of Cobain as he tried to make his voice heard above the racket. Lyrics were mostly chewed up and spat out as incomprehensible and unimportant. Not gibberish as such, but guttural wails of frustration and alienation. The excitement and power of the music was obvious, yet listening through the lens of Butch Vig’s crisper production of Nevermind, Bleach sounded like it was being made by aliens, admittedly aliens with knowledge of how to hold a decent tune.
Yet as mentioned, the pop sensibility is there throughout. An obvious pointer is “About a Girl,” the jangly (sort of) love song that calls to mind The Beatles or Jefferson Airplane at their most lovely and infectious. Cobain harmonizes with himself and sets the agenda for the layered vocals on Nevermind. It is also there in the raging punk of “Negative Creep” and in the Sabbath sludge of “School” that without the echoed howls of “no recess” might have never built on its epic quality. Another obvious pointer is the band’s cover of Shocking Blue’s Sixties groove-fest, “Love Buzz.” Although admittedly the groove is placed there by another composer, the band offer a beefed-up, if throwaway, version of the song. “Paper Cuts” also rumbles and throbs and basically contains within it the template for every subsequent Alice in Chains song.
Despite being rush recorded for just over six hundred dollars at Reciprocal Recording Studio in Seattle (later Sleater-Kinney would record their 1997 album Dig Me Out there) the production remains muscular and pulsating throughout. Nirvana’s reputation as a solid live band allowed them to translate this onto record and produce a set of songs that fizzled with young energy. At no point does the listener believe the recording is below par or in any way sounding rushed. The only complaint in the recording/production of Bleach is the weak inclusion of Chad Channing’s drums that, in comparison to Cobain’s crunchy guitar and Novoselic’s rumbling bass, appear undercooked, tired and tinny. Channing was and is a solid drummer, but the recording doesn't capture his energy well. The drum sound quality only improves when Melvins drummer Dale Crover takes up the stool for “Floyd the Barber,” “Paper Cuts” and “Downer.”
Still, all this is in retrospect. Bleach, alongside In Utero (1993) made zero sense to me at the time of initial listening. I wrote about In Utero for this very publication last year for its 25 anniversary. The basic premise in that article was that in order to access and understand the music contained on In Utero there needed to be the required time and effort made by the listener to engage with it on its own terms. Being young, dumb and full of...er...fun, In Utero and its anguish was not immediately accessible to me. As time wore on, the majesty of the record began to have its way. Slow at first, but then with great impact. Once In Utero was deciphered and made sense, so did Bleach.
I’m not saying it was easy. Like In Utero, there was an angle to the record. Start with the bouncy and boppy songs to find the groove and then launch into the heavier stuff. Bleach shares something with In Utero and perhaps one can’t be understood without the other. Both, try as they might, bury the pop sensibilities underneath feedback wails, chainsaw-like guitars, and Cobain’s more exaggerated vocal performances. It makes for an uneasy listening experience, but a rewarding one when it all clicks.
Upon listening to the record thirty years on to reacquaint myself for this very article it can’t help but be noted how infectious and immediate the music is. How in parts the grunts, drawls, and wails of Cobain sound much like the vocal stylistics of the era’s more flamboyant frontmen. Bleach was one of many records that kicked open the doors to a new era, but it borrowed from previous musical eras to achieve it. In the mix are punk, glam rock, sludge metal, sixties ditties, and straight-up pop. It is in essence a definitive Nirvana record.
Bleach has been reassessed over the years as a Grunge standard and has rightly sold in the millions. It encapsulates the frustration and dissatisfaction of being young and eking out an existence in a subpar town when the world is there for the taking. In fact, anyone wishing to distill and understand the sound and era of those times could do no worse than to listen to Bleach in full. It really is the very definition of the strange and short lived Grunge genre.