When it first appeared, 20 years ago, Nirvana’s debut album Bleach was pretty good, if not completely amazing. It was no God’s Balls. Two decades on and Bleach is still a pretty good album made by a band who had $600, were tightly rehearsed, and just so happened to have one of the best songwriters of the ’90s among their number.
Their $600 dollars brought them Jack Endino’s production talents. For this anniversary edition, Endino has remastered the original recordings. The main difference is immediately obvious; it’s a hell of a lot louder than the original version. That’s almost always the case when something’s undergone the remaster treatment, but as a result, some of the dynamic range has been lost here and there. Yet with an album like Bleach such things are hardly a concern. The only time that it’s particularly noticeable is during About A Girl, Nirvana’s only real dalliance with anything approaching radio-friendly, quieter, ballad material on this album.
Of all Nirvana’s works, Bleach is the most musically claustrophobic. It sounds dirty, rushed and in places poundingly heavy. If grunge hadn’t been coined as a catch-all term for the Seattle sound, then it would fit nicely as a specific adjective for this collection of songs. While many claim this to be Nirvana’s finest album, the truth is that the band was still honing their craft.
Blew, School and Negative Creep immediately stand out as something rather special, just as they did 20 years ago. Blew’s simplistic rumbling bass line is crushingly oppressive and Cobain’s guitar twists around it in a noisy stupor. Once he hits the chorus and those glorious screams you’ve pretty much found what made Nirvana so special.
Even when the material nods at the grindingly heavy influence of The Melvins, Cobain’s pop sensibility would invariably shine through, casting a different light on things. When something more visceral is called for – on the blistering howls that punctuate School, for example, Cobain still manages to be drenched in a perfect tonality that made it musical rather than just pure primal screaming. The sinister brooding of Paper Cuts is another classic example of Cobain’s vocals elevating a dirge into something quite spectacular as he inflects the verses with apathy and terror in equal measure.
The likes of Scoff or Swap Meet fall flat when compared to Bleach’s finer moments and, although there are some thrills to be found in the second half of the album, it never quite delights as often as it should (although the seething plod of Sifting deserves a special mention for its gloriously relentless main riff).
As part of the 20th Anniversary set, there’s also a live recording of the 1990 Pine Street Theatre Gig in Portland, Oregon. It’s halfway decent quality, particularly when compared to the majority of Nirvana bootlegs. This early set finds the band in fine form, with Cobain’s guitar sounding wired and urgent. The version of Scoff included here wipes the floor with the studio version in terms of intensity. The songs are thrashed out with passion and, despite the band being perhaps unjustly remembered as shambolic and chaotic live, they are remarkably tight here with Krist Novoselic’s bass and Chad Channing’s drumming combining brilliantly.
With a set list that includes Been A Son, Dive, Spank Thru and Sappy (both early Nirvana songs that showcase Cobain’s ability to craft perfect pop songs) and a cover of The Vaselines‘ Molly’s Lips there’s little room for material from Bleach in the set. Nevertheless, it is exciting to hear the band playing uninhibited by the spoils of fame or the pressure that Nevermind would later bring.