Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Nothing like a little "Bleach" to tidy up

 Is there another reason for your stain?
Could you believe who we knew stress or strain?
Here is another word that rhymes with shame ...

"Bleach," the first album by Nirvana, may not have had the commercial clout or immediate impact of sophomore effort "Nevermind," but it remains an important, interesting and just-plain-energetic collection of songs that set the tone for what was to come in the 1990s. The roots for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" are here, as are the already perfected shrieks and howls that became a Kurt Cobain signature.

What is truly unfortunate about this album is how, even now, it is ignored. Grab the Nirvana "best of" disc and you'll find "About a Girl," and that's it. The "Icon" disc doesn't even have that (it uses the MTV Unplugged version). This paints the false impression that "Bleach" was a one-track (or no-track) show, with subpar filler that the band would prefer to forget.

This couldn't be further from the truth.

The song kicks off with "Blew," which contains the lyrics given above. Right from the beginning, the band is in a groove and Cobain is switching from a spacey vocal to an urgent rock vocal within seconds, giving way to a wail that would define the generation.

Add on the above-mentioned "About a Girl" (a classic, and very laid back with yearning vocals ... and the lyrics seem to be pretty cohesive and relevant, which isn't always the case with Cobain). Then include "School," "Love Buzz" and "Negative Creep" and you've just named a handful of great Nirvana songs that would be woven into their live sets for the rest of the band's career (which I guess isn't saying too much, considering Cobain's suicide in 1994 ... but still).

The other songs on the album ("Floyd the Barber," "Paper Cuts," "Scoff," "Swap Meet," "Mr. Moustache," "Sifting") vary in quality, but they aren't bad. "Floyd the Barber" and "Paper Cuts," especially, are pretty tasty.

These songs tended to mostly be riffs ... the lyrics would be one or two sentences, at most, with a lot of repetition. But you really don't notice that, because Cobain's delivery is so adventurous. He changes it up. Different inflections, different deliveries, that's how different interpretations come out. Check out "School" for one of the best examples of this.

The song "Love Buzz," which was a cover and not an original tune, had that poppy vibe that Cobain embraced with his angst. He didn't necessarily hide from melody and a good hook, which set him apart at the time from others who were trying to do harsher, rawer, harder music. He loved harsher, rawer, harder music, too ... but combined it with a pop sensibility that grabbed everyone's ears (whether they wanted to be grabbed or not). You could see where "Nevermind" came from, after listening to this song.

According to Wikipedia:

The album has generally received positive reviews by professionals. Anthony Carew from the Guide said that the album "define[d] the entire decade of the '90s", and awarded it four out of five stars. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic gave the album three and a half out of five stars, noting that "Kurt Cobain illustrated signs of his considerable songcraft, particularly on the minor-key ballad 'About a Girl' and the dense churn of 'Blew'". He also said that "it's a debut from a band that shows potential but haven't yet achieved it." NME's Edwin Pouncey said that the album was the "biggest, baddest sound that Sub Pop have so far managed to unearth. So primitive that they manage to make label mates Mudhoney sound like Genesis, Nirvana turn up the volume and spit and claw their way to the top of the musical garbage heap", and gave it an eight out of ten rating. Bleach was considered by Rolling Stone as "a moderate hit on college radio and the underground/DIY circuit."
Before Nevermind was released, Bleach had sold 40,000 units in North America. The 1992 re-release of the album was successful at the charts, with Bleach eventually reaching number 89 at the Billboard 200, number 33 on the UK album charts, number 34 on the Australian Recording Industry Association chart, and number 24 on the Finland charts. Kurt Cobain's death in 1994 also lead to a resurgence of popularity, with Bleach entering the Top Pop Catalog chart at number six in the week following his death, and eventually earning the top spot on May 7. The 2009 deluxe edition entered the Catalog Albums chart at number seven. Bleach was certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America on February 1995, and has sold an estimated 1.7 million units in the United States. It is Sub Pop's best-selling release ever. The album has sold well over 4.0 million units worldwide.

I came to "Bleach" well after Cobain died. I got swept up by "Nevermind," the same as everyone. But I really fell in love with "In Utero" (it remains my favorite Nirvana album), and loved the harsher sound and the angrier feeling. I came across "Bleach" after my sophomore year in college, when I found it in the bargain bin for $6.99 new. I figured I had nothing to lose at that price, bought it and gave it a try. It was like finding the missing link of Nirvana's sound ... taking "Nevermind," "Incesticide" and "In Utero" into consideration, there was this almost-thrashing quality to a lot of the music that never really got full release until I'd heard "Bleach."

"Bleach" can't compete with "Nevermind" with it's big commercial explosion and epic sound and cultural imprint, nor does it stand alongside "In Utero" for quality, artistry or mood ... but it's worthy of real appreciation and far more consideration than it generally receives. If you want some good guitar rock that doesn't get too complicated lyrically and keeps up the pace throughout, give "Bleach" a spin. There's too much good stuff here to get swept under the rug. And grab the deluxe reissue when you do give it a try ... the live bonus material will impress you with the band's ability to translate that energy into the live setting, where Cobain could really shine.


  1. I went for a shorter review, quoted Wikipedia (not my favorite resource, but tends to be pretty reliable for album stuff) and used videos to break things up more often than I had in earlier posts. Still trying to find my footing with how I want to do things. :) Having fun doing it, too!

  2. kurt was murdered, he didn't commit suicide

  3. Well, that's definitely a popular theory. Certainly, some books and movies address that.

    I'm sure you already know that. ;)

    Just going with the official report.


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