Nirvana – Bleach (1989) – Review

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In a way, this is the review I never wanted to do. Bleach, Nirvana‘s starter kit, has no great allure and was never able to really convince me. Too bare bone in structure1), totally scratchy and with a somewhat unfinished varnish.

You see, Nirvana and me, we go way back and this anti-fanboy opinion of that first record is well-founded in all sorts of empirics. Or in other words, this has not always been a relationship of love and understanding. We can of course also find excuses why this album should exist at all and I may list some below, but nothing will erase the inherent bad quality of that piece.

But should Bleach really smuggle itself into our review pipe or not? I think it should, all the above notwithstanding. Because, believe it or not, it is part of a story. A story that’s severely limited in time, true, but this band was a powerhouse whilst it lasted.

And let me just state this: I don’t care about the perceived difficulties of life in the Pacific Northwest. Nor about the sub-culture that whelped the grunge movement in the first place. Too much rain and too much oppressive greenery are of no concern in this review, which – allegedly – drove (and still drives2)) angst-ridden teenagers to screamy grunge sessions in the basement.

But lets get back to the record.

So, confusion reigned at first. There’s no Dave Grohl to be found on Bleach anywhere, and Nirvana without Dave can’t be the thing. Right? Well, for the first few years of existence, the band had quite a turnover. A bloodless drummer chainsaw massacre of sorts, if you will. Out of the five mutations they had in total, only Jason Everman on rhythm guitar ever got canned outside of the stick-wielding community. So, long story short, Chad Channing had the drums on Bleach. Well, kind of. Because on three tracks – Floyd the Barber, Paper Cuts, and DownerDale Crover controlled the drums.

As the lore goes, Nirvana recorded Bleach on a (very tight) budget. Some 606 of Jason Everman‘s hard-earned greenbacks3) went into the making of this record. And – allegedly – the actual recording was a pretty rushed affair, with the lyrics still being written by Kurt Cobain on the way to the studio.

Sub Pop’s role wasn’t all dandy in this story either. True, the band recouped the 600 dollars as an advance on royalties4), but apart from that this wasn’t smooth sailing. The record company was the popular go-to label of the Seattle Grunge scene. And in their defense, this was pretty much the only label that saw something special in the fledgling Nirvana. Also, they were able to sign well-known grunge outfits like Soundgarden or Mudhoney. AND they’re still here to this day with a pretty eclectic roster to boot.

Only that they weren’t exactly in funds back then, and it took them months to cough up the money to issue the record. And truly so, their contract with Nirvana didn’t last long. Nevermind already released on DGC a short while later.

At the outset, Bleach was nowhere near a smashing success with some 40’000 copies sold in the US only. Fame really only happened, once Nirvana became a global sensation. And this surely started to happen once Geffen Records did their re-issue in 1992. Which – ironically – put Sub Pop back in funds to continue operations. But the record went on to real fame upon Cobain‘s death and went platinum in the US in ’95.

You see, Kurt Cobain‘s statements that he worked up a froth to write angry lyrics really shows. Bleach contains so much angst, teenage worries, and other somewhat immature themes it almost hurts. It is of course also true that this is exactly what grunge is all about.

This – again – perfectly links into this bad habit to swallow half of the words once he screamed them out to the world. No wonder he would later complain that 90% of journalists got his lyrics wrong when trying to transcribe them. But to cut him some slack, this truly is a general and widespread disease in the anglo-saxon territory of rock and metal.

Where Nevermind positively oozed starkly amplified grunge excellence5), Bleach mostly demonstrates white-hot anger. Disdain towards the audience, hate towards society at large, and a somewhat lackadaisical approach to songwriting.

More punk than grunge would allow, the record nonetheless contains a few interesting style directions. From thrashy moments to reflective rock passages reminiscent of – hold on to your seats – early Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin in their prime. They then mushed this into this mangled mess this record was to become.

Rushed, brutal, raw, and anger-ridden, Bleach indeed feels like those Paper Cuts that one of their tracks so avidly describes. There is nothing heroic, no fame and – for sure – nothing gem-like that some of the more starry-eyed connoisseurs seem to depict. Even if tracks like About A Girl indeed hint at greater things to come6), of excellence still to be unveiled.

If anything, Bleach is THE example of a grunge record written by a totally unknown band from a lost corner of Washington State. And yet again, a record that only started to perform well once Nirvana became a global sensation. But its claim to fame really took a hike once Kurt Cobain violently left this world. That’s how cvlt records sometimes come to pass despite themselves. Because – as a fan – you gotta have the collection, even if it means to break out a few bucks for the ugly duckling this record will forever remain.

In other words, if I yearn for a juicy slab of barebone grunge, In Utero is my prime cut. But Bleach will always stay way back there, in that dark corner where it belongs.

Record Rating: 4/10 | LabelSub Pop | Web: Official Band Site
Album Release: 15 June 1989


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