1989: Nirvana - Bleach [Deluxe Edition]

Nirvana is often accredited with single-handedly mainstreaming the paradoxically titled "alternative" genre, a style and attitude that would go on to define the direction of rock music for the next two decades. Between the hyperbolic praise lavished upon them by the great mass of rock dilettantes and the dismissive accusations of plagiarism from the cognoscenti, it's easy to see why Nirvana's legacy has remained so controversial in spite of almost universal popular acclaim. Twenty years after the release of their full-length debut and fifteen after Kurt Cobain's suicide, I feel like we're finally approaching a place where we can look past Nirvana as Gen X zeitgeist, Nirvana as cautionary tale for the media-age, and Nirvana as megalithic cultural phenomenon to objectively assess Nirvana as an honest-to-goodness rock band.

Bleach is often regarded as something of a footnote to Nirvana's rather spare catalogue (or more appropriately, as “the CD with ‘About a Girl’ on it”). I remember hearing it for the first time and not quite knowing how to make heads or tails of the plodding audio-sludge drooling out my speakers. The instantly memorable hooks, the cathartically explosive choruses -- both seemed completely subsumed beneath abrasive, dirge-like melodies and on-the-cheap production. Hell, the aforementioned “About a Girl” sounded like it made its way onto the record by accident. Bleach is alternately praised and criticized as being Nirvana's most authentically “grunge” album, Cobain himself claiming it was shaped under pressure from both his label and the Seattle grunge scene to play “rock music.” Looking back with the power of hindsight, however, the differences between Bleach and mega-breakthrough Nevermind feel almost cosmetic. Although heavier and rougher than its more melodic counterpart, Bleach was already steeped in the loud/quiet dynamics they so famously copped from The Pixies, and more importantly, it had some freaking great songs.

“Love Buzz” fashions a repetitive, hypnotic bass lick into the backbone of an unexpectedly sprightly rocker. The more bottom-heavy but equally energetic “Negative Creep” features one of Cobain's roughest vocal deliveries. Along with “School,” the song highlights Cobain's juvenile sense of humor, an aspect of Nirvana's music that's too often overshadowed by the tragic circumstances of his death. Great songs such as these are easy to lose, however, amid the preponderance of heavy-for-heavy's sake tracks, especially on the record's second half. And while “School” and “About a Girl” show Cobain hitting his stride as a singer, much of his vocal work lacks the pathos that characterized his later efforts.

Sub Pop's 20th anniversary remaster ups the sound quality and throws a light on some of the album's more unique moments. It also includes a previously unreleased live recording from 1990. Although not necessarily essential listening, it is a nice bonus, especially for the early version of “Sappy” (a.k.a. “Verse-Chorus-Verse,” a.k.a. “the secret track from No Alternative”).

At the end of the day, Bleach is still the weakest of the band's full-length albums, but there's enough good stuff to merit a spin. The best moments point to a band that was already straining against the Led Zepplin-meets-The Melvins aesthetic dominating the Seattle scene. And while I'm sure that the success of their sophomore album came as a shock to many, the seeds of its brilliance were here all along, waiting to be unearthed by anyone daring enough to sift through the sludge.

1. Blew
2. Floyd the Barber
3. About a Girl
4. School
5. Love Buzz
6. Paper Cuts
7. Negative Creep
8. Scoff
9. Swap Meet
10. Mr. Moustache
11. Sifting
12. Big Cheese
13. Downer
14. Intro (live)
15. School (live)
16. Floyd the Barber (live)
17. Dive (live)
18. Love Buzz (live)
19. Spank Thru (live)
20. Molly's Lips (live)
21. Sappy (live)
22. Scoff (live)
23. About a Girl (live)
24. Been a Son (live)
25. Blew (live)

DeLorean

There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

Most Read