Nirvana – [Album]

Monday, 23 November 2009

Sometimes the only truth that really matters is that the truth and genuine nature of a record may never be known. Particularly when a band gets as big as Nirvana did with the release of Nevermind in 1991, it's very tempting to obscure truths, events and plans because they're inconvenient; at a certain level, everyone wants to believe in inevitability, if only to validate their own view. Some of the facts about Nirvana's debut album have never been disputed or fudged, but not everything that has been said can possibly be accurate, nor can they all be false. For example, everyone knows that Bleach cost $606 to make, but what was the band making? Some accounts of the events surrounding Bleach state that, as the ink began to dry on Nirvana's freshly endorsed contract with Sub Pop, singer Kurt Cobain was so excited that he ran out of the label's office and up the street yelling that his band had a record contract and they were going to be rock stars. Other accounts claim that Cobain was still begrudgingly writing songs on the drives to recording sessions as Jack Endino's Reciprocal Recording Studios and that most of the lyrics were just tossed off and meaningless – not at all a telling sign of a band that's excited to be making its first record. There are dozens of conflicting opinions about the quality of the music too; Cobain regularly panned Bleach (he'd do the same to Nevermind later), many critics retroactively stated that the album gave no impression of what Nirvana would later achieve, and still other sources maintain that the basic elements to Nirvana's success were there in the run-time, but a combination of the band's own unwillingness to give in to its pop proclivities, Endino's raw production style and everyone's differing perceptions of what grunge (and Nirvana) would and should be all played significant contributing roles in the final result contained on the album. Needless to say, there's precious little about Nirvana's first album that hasn't been distorted, diffused or otherwise obscured over time by most everyone attached to or surrounding the record (and the press, and other musicians and hangers on – the list goes for miles).

In the end and beyond all that though, there is the album itself and it speaks volumes in its own right.

In fact, twenty years on, Bleach has aged a whole lot better than many of the other albums that came out of Seattle (and Sub Pop in particular) around the same time. While those records – like Superfuzz Bigmuff, Ultramega OK and Rehab Doll – all still hold nostalgic power for fans that remember where they were and the circumstances of the time, Bleach is the only one that continues to hold some sway  as far as the caliber of the material and the sound of it still being pertinent. As the attenuated and rubbery drop-tuned bass of “Blew” warms up the album, listeners are given the impression that something dark and angry, and also conflicted and confused is coming their way but, because Cobain's vocals are still more melodic than any hardcore, metal or other similarly bent Sub Pop albums of the time, the sound impossible to pin down. “School” and “Negative Creep” straddle a similar sort of line as grindcore guitars flank harsh but melodic vocal timbres driven home by a rhythm section that packs the same kind of force most would equate with blunt force trauma. Still elsewhere, Nirvana (and Cobain in particular) bring to mind a sensibility not unlike that of a bush-league Sonic Youth (check “Paper Cuts”) as the singer attempts to reconcile a masculinization of Kim Gordon's deadpan croon with some meth-amphetamine aggression. In each case, it's true that Jack Endino's post-punk production doesn't bear much similarity to the ultra-clean and pretty style of Butch Vig, nor does it possess the textural punch of Steve Albini but songs like “About A Girl,” Nirvana's treatment of “Love Buzz” and “School” do mirror some of the ideas on Nevermind (look at “Stay Away,” “Breed” and “In Bloom”) while the aggressive tendencies of “Tourette's,” “Serve The Servants” and “Very Ape” do get sketched out in “Downer,” “Negative Creep” and “Floyd The Barber.” It may have been tossed off and unpolished this first time, but the ideas are there.

It gets even harder to believe that Bleach meant nothing to the band as the previously unreleased audio show recorded on February 9, 1990 in Portland, OR rolls out after the audio cuts on this reissue. The live material serves as an excellent reminder of just how intense the band could be in the early going – before the drugs or the rollercoaster ride really started to take hold. After the white noise introductions are made, Nirvana digs in to “School” and grinds out “Dive,” illustrating that before everything took off, Nirvana got justifiably noticed initially on the strength of their live presence. It's clear even now, going back, that the band was destined for something – they were that strong a live act. Kurt Cobain possessed a voice that, as ragged as it was (or maybe because of that fact), could resonate easily and trule within people of the right age and frame of mind. His caterwauling guitar was very atonal, yes, but every time it comes together with Krist Novoselic's bass and Dan Peters' drums (Dave Grohl would join Nirvana about eight months later) as a sort of aggressive power pop; in the strictest terms, it's not conventional pop at all, but the anthemic nature of it is undeniable and leaves the same kind of impression. The material in the set gets poppier too as (at that time) unreleased songs including “Dive,” “Sappy,” “Been A Son” and a cover of The Vaselines' “Molly's Lips” start to point to a new sound and direction that, in retrospect, accurately represents where Nirvana was headed. Combined with Bleach as it is on the reissue, the set proves to be a very provocative thread about the truth and nature of Nirvana. This set implies what shape the growth curve actually took rather than what has been stated and then contradicted and then restated before. At the same time, the combination makes the Bleach reissue essential for long-time fans – maybe without meaning to, it provides a bit of much-needed clarity.



Nirvana – "School" – Bleach 20th Anniversary reissue

Further Reading:
Nirvana Live At Reading CD/DVD review on Ground Control.


Bleach 20th Anniversary reissue
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon.

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