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 is generally considered more a historical footnote than a necessary addition to music lovers’ record collections. Illustrating a band only beginning to find its voice, the album pales in comparison to the artistic glories that the trio later reached with Nevermind (1991) and In Utero (1993). Sure, there have been enough curious Nirvana neophytes over the years to generate sales of 1.7 million copies in the US alone for the record. What these fans quickly discover, however, is an album that is raw, murky, and lacking the catchy songcraft that make Nevermind and In Utero indelible listens. Bear in mind that, solely based on SoundScan sales figures, nearly four times as many people have heard the MTV Unplugged in New York rendition of the Bleach track “About a Girl” than the original recording. And a greater number than that have never heard the rest of the album.
Furthermore, it’s not like Bleach was begging for a re-release. While it’s nowhere near the best-selling Nirvana album, it is Sub Pop’s biggest selling-record ever, and the indie label has long ensured that Bleach is always in print and available even at big box retailers. Hell, I bought my copy at Kmart nearly a decade ago. It’s quite likely record buyers decided years ago whether or not they want to own Bleach, and chances are that a disturbingly slight Deluxe Edition release that offers little more than new mastering job and the inclusion of an unreleased Nirvana live performance are not going to entice them to pick it up.
Regardless, this reissue does provide an opportunity for listeners to reexamine Nirvana’s early music. It may not have the instant appeal of Nevermind, but judged on its own merits, Bleach actually holds up pretty well. Bleach is very much a grunge album in the truest definition of the genre. Drawing inspiration from the drunken punk/metal fusion propagated by Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and the Melvins, Nirvana constructs song after song out of grinding riffs and lurching rhythms that move like conveyer belts. More than any other Nirvana release, Bleach prominently displays the trio’s metal influences. Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath are the major reference points throughout Bleach, while the twisting riffs of “Swap Meet” could be mistaken for slowed-down Metallica. As a result, it’s the one Nirvana album better suited for headbanging than moshing.
Late Nirvana singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain admitted in the early 1990s that Bleach intentionally showcased the ‘70s-influenced heavy rock sound Sub Pop coveted at the time, but that by doing so it helped the band acknowledge its previously-underplayed metal roots and subsequently craft its own identity. Here, Cobain displays a preference for single note riffing and more conventional rock guitar soloing that is largely absent from later works. As the group had yet to develop its classic quiet verses/loud choruses dynamics, Nirvana’s song arrangements rely on a variety of riff changes to keep things interesting. Starting with Nevermind, Cobain intentionally simplified his compositions in order to emphasize their pop components. Less song-focused than later Nirvana works, Bleach acts as an interesting showcase of the band’s musical chops.
Aside from his able riffing, Cobain’s vocals deserve special notice. Cobain dismissed his lyrics on Bleach as little more than afterthoughts, completed the night before the group began recording. While that is a bit unfair (“School” may contain only two lines, but “Floyd the Barber” and “Swap Meet” are particularly interesting character sketches), the way Cobain sings the album’s words definitely bear greater scrutiny. Throughout, Cobain’s vocals are strangled and anguished, often sounding as if it takes monumental effort to wrench his songs out of his body. Cobain’s growling is indicative of a period when his delivery was far more important than what words or notes he sang. Bassist Krist Novoselic’s bass is weighty, but is also allowed to craft its own melodic path in counterpoint to Cobain’s guitar tracks. Over the years, drummers Chad Channing and Dale Crover (who appears on three tracks) have received unfair criticism about their drumming abilities on the album, when really their biggest crime is simply that neither of them are Dave Grohl, who joined Nirvana the year after Bleach came out. Channing and Crover lack Grohl’s sheer power, but they acquit themselves well in delivering the album’s thudding rhythms, laced with some nice fills.
Many of the songs on Bleach are quite good, and at least one — the jangly Beatles-esque anomaly “About a Girl” — is great. Still, the album has also has its share of flaws. Repetitiveness is a recurring problem on Bleach, namely in “School” and “Negative Creep”, the latter of which would be a far stronger track if the verse and chorus sections didn’t go on forever. A few tracks fail to hit the mark completely: “Papercuts” is an exercise in Melvins-style sludge that lacks charisma, while “Downer” is by Cobain’s admission an unsuccessful attempt to approximate the more politically-strident hardcore punk bands he favored.
As part of this Deluxe Edition release, Bleach has been remastered for a second time (the first was for the 1992 CD reissue). Typical of Sub Pop grunge recordings, Jack Endino’s production for Bleach was suitably murky and gnarled, almost claustrophobic at times. The remastering process (supervised by Endino) clarifies things a bit while still retaining the album’s dense sound. While Cobain’s vocals are virtually unaltered, the guitars have been sharpened and the low end has been turned up. This is most noticeable on “Floyd the Barber”, where the guitar and bass slam together like depth charges. In addition, the drums have a bit more weight and definition, with the snare in particular becoming more prominent. Still, the changes won’t be obvious to most listeners unless they are comparing past releases of Bleach side-by-side.
The true draw of this release is the inclusion of a complete Nirvana concert performance from February 1990. Featuring plenty of material from Bleach as well as contemporaneous compositions such as “Dive”, “Spank Thru”, and “Been a Son”, the live material is solid, although Endino’s mixing of the tapes makes the performances sound little different from the album versions. Consequently, it’s really of interest only to hardcore Nirvana fans. Beyond that, the Deluxe Edition offers little else. The set features a gatefold digipak that contains a single disc with both the album and the concert, as well as a thick booklet stored inconveniently in the middle section of the case. There are no liner notes at all in the booklet, just scores of pictures that can mostly be found elsewhere, along with a few curiosities like a reproduction of Nirvana’s original Sub Pop contract.
The lack of liner notes underscores one of the set’s biggest weaknesses: there’s no context, and thus this release exists on the notion that commemorating the 20th anniversary of the first Nirvana album is worthwhile without bothering to explain why. Certainly more could have been done to convey the historical importance of the group’s early work. Furthermore, given everything fits on a single disc on the CD release at least, Sub Pop could’ve easily included another disc that, in combination with what is already offered in the package, could have acted as a compendium of Nirvana’s material on the label. Where are the Blew EP, the “Sliver” single, and “Spank Thru”? In addition to detailed liner notes, adding these tracks would have made this reissue a more appealing purchase, as well as gone a ways towards demonstrating how Nirvana evolved into the group the world came to know them as (particularly in the case of the “Sliver”, the first song where Nirvana’s sound was fully realized). Compared to the royal treatment last year’s excellent Deluxe Edition reissue of Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff received, Sub Pop seems to have dropped the ball here.
Bleach is a stronger record than it is commonly perceived to be, and does deserve to be checked out in some form by fans of heavy riff-driven rock. Regardless, this reissue is underwhelming, seemingly more concerned with enticing Nirvana completists to purchase it for the live material than in illuminating why Nirvana’s first album was an important step in a career that has helped define rock music for the last two decades.