Against Consensus: Underrated Albums That Outshine the Critical Favourite
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
Nirvana - Bleach
MAYBE it is outrageous to suggest classic albums...
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
can be written off or are not as lofty as they appear. I am not suggesting that but feel there is this big critical weight that is paid to some albums. In the case of Nirvana, Nevermind is seen as their defining statement. That came out in 1991 and is considered one of the best albums of all time. Many people overlook Bleach and Nirvana’s start. The record came out in 1989 and is a very different beast to the polished and blockbuster Nevermind. It is amazing to think how the Washington-formed band changed between records. Nevermind is this titanic and all-conquering record that was not expected to be a success. Given the popularity of its lead single, Smells Like Teen Spirit, the album took off and became a smash. Look back to 1989 and a rather modest introduction. Although Bleach failed to chart upon its original release, it was received well by critics and announced the introduction of this unique and soon-to-be-world-dominating group. I think Bleach is a stronger record than Nevermind because it has that rawness and I love the ragged edges. Maybe the songs are not as polished and there are fewer huge smashes but it seems like a more thrilling and genuine record. I will come to look at highlights from the album but I listen to Bleach and it digs deeper and stays in my memory longer.
Their November 1988 debut single, Love Buzz, got people talking and, to many, it is the standout cut on Bleach. Nirvana rehearsed for two to three weeks in preparation for recording of Bleach and Sub Pop had only requested an E.P. (the band would release an E.P., Blew, between Bleach and Nevermind). The band headed to the studio with producer Jack Endino and it is Nirvana in the days before drummer Dave Grohl. On their debut, the band worked with Chad Channing (on the majority of songs) and Dale Crover (on Floyd the Barber, Paper Cuts and Downer). Many critics noted a slightly weaker percussion sound compared to subsequent albums from the band – the magic and meat of Dave Grohl was lacking. The album was recorded and laid down fairly quickly and inexpensively but there was to be a delay. Sub Pop head Bruce Pavitt wanted the album to be re-sequenced which caused a delay until the funds could be raised. I think, although Bleach is incredible, it is a little top-heavy so I wonder whether the original track sequence would have afforded a greater spread and balance. In any case; there was a feeling from Nirvana lead Kurt Cobain that the music conformed to the Grunge expectations at the time. Cobain felt Bleach was designed to fit into the Seattle sound and, as such, the lead felt quite angered at the time.
IN THIS PHOTO: Nirvana (Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Chad Channing) in 1989/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
He claims most of the lyrics were written the night before recording – many were penned whilst driving to the studio – and had no real meaning. So long as they were not sexist then it did not really matter. It was clear, when listening to the songs, that there was truth and biography. Songs like School are a commentary on the Grunge scene and labels like Sub Pop; About a Girl is a Beatles-inspired gem that shows the balance of moods and tones on the album. Bleach is not only a stunning debut album but something that does not get the attention and acclaim it warrants. It is that anger from Cobain that propels the album and, alongside Krist Novoselic’s chunky and malleable bass, there is a goofiness and playfulness that sits alongside the aggression. Mr. Moustache was about masculinity and being macho; directing itself to Nirvana’s male fans. Negative Creep is about Cobain himself whilst About a Girl showcases the songwriter’s talents as a Pop crafter. Cobain was keen to hide his love of Pop – and affection for bands such as R.E.M. – because he did not want to alienate their Grunge core. He knew the risk of putting a jangly Pop song on a Grunge album but he need not of worried: About a Girl is considered one of the very finest in the Nirvana cannon.
In his earliest interviews, Cobain explains that the lyrics are among the least important considerations for him. He said he goes through two or three subjects in a song and the title can mean absolutely nothing at all. Maybe a few tracks on Bleach do not hit the heights of Love Buzz and About a Girl but the band’s debut is overloaded with quality. It is a dirty and rawer record than Nevermind and, whilst it does not get the same focus and acclaim as the 1991 gem; I feel Bleach is a more interesting, rounded and rewarding album. I love Nevermind and have endless respect for it but feel it is too polished has that commercial edge. The band’s final album, In Utero (1993), would see them return to a grungier and dirtier sound. If Cobain was sceptical about Bleach’s brilliance and legacy; reviews for the album have shown plenty of love. Pitchfork, writing in 2009, reviewed the twentieth anniversary edition of Bleach:
“But rather than unfairly compare it to the platinum sheen of sophomore release Nevermind, Bleach is best appreciated today as a snapshot of a specific time and place, of a Seattle scene bubbling up before it turned into a media adjective: In the Aero Zeppelin grind of "School" and the Mudhoney-quoting scum-bucket thrash of "Negative Creep", you have the perfect audio manifestation of the stark, exhilarating black-and-white Charles Peterson photos that captured late-80s Seattle like a series of strobe-light flickers (and which populate much of this reissue's 52-page photo booklet). Original producer Jack Endino's new remastering job gives Bleach a much-needed boost in fidelity, but there's an intrinsic, primordial murkiness to this album that can't be polished-- while Axl was welcoming the masses into the Sunset Strip jungle, Nirvana dragged the Sub Pop set into the bleak, chilly backwoods from which they came.
Though briskly paced, Bleach is a front-loaded record, the maniacal/melodic contrasts of its stellar first half-- anchored by the epochal anti-love song "About a Girl"-- ceding to the more period-typical grunge of its second”.
NME reviewed Bleach in 1989:
“This is 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.
Included here (natch!) is their brilliant single 'Love Buzz', shorn of its original Looney Toon opening but still a magnificent couple of minutes.
Equally glorious is 'Negative Creep', a leash strainer of a song that eventually gets loose and goes on the rampage like a rabid Rottweiler. Fab!
'Bleach' could be accused of being a record that is slightly top heavy with too much filler (the overlong 'Shifting' being a prime example), but give it enough spins and even the silt rises to the top. Nirvana are undoubtedly at their best when they're playing short and punchy songs as opposed to drawn out experiments with soundâ€¦But what the hell! For a first LP this sounds pretty damn good to me”.
I don’t think there has been a debut album since with the same mixture of textures, moods and thrills. Most people who love Nirvana will edge to Nevermind and hold that dearest but I prefer Bleach. The grubbiness and anger is terrific but you do get melodic moments like About a Girl. The absence of Grohl does mean the percussion is not as pronounced and physical as it would be on Nevermind but that is a minor complaint.
IN THIS PHOTO: Nirvana in 1989/PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Lavine
Almost thirty years after its release; Bleach remains, to some, a curiosity and promising start whereas others view it as a huge statement from a band who would soon take a gigantic step. I love their scrappy debut and even love ‘weaker’ songs such as Scoff and Swap Meet. Bleach is a record that will always be close to me and I feel many modern bands can take guidance and instruction from it. If you have not heard it then set some time aside and investigate the 1989 debut from the Grunge icons. Bleach is a wonderful album that is a lot stronger than many critics (and the band themselves) claim. It did not get the same big reviews as Nevermind but I feel reinvestigation is needed. As it turns thirty next year; let’s shine a new light on a brilliant debut from a sensational trio. Stocked with great songs and a restless energy throughout; I think a new generation needs to discover Bleach. I adore the album and think its real influence and impact is hard to describe. I will spin it now because, every time I play it, something new comes to light. A stunning record that holds up after all these years; the majestic and stunning Bleach deserves a bigger audience. Maybe Nevermind will always win out and get the biggest shout but I think there is an awful lot to be said for Nirvana’s...
IN THIS PHOTO: Nirvana in 1989/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images