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Album Reviews

Nirvana: Bleach (20th Anniversary Reissue)

By Anand Varghese | January 16, 2010

Split Magazine: NirvanaI’ve made the disclaimer before on Split that, at its heyday, the grunge era had little resonance with me. I came to it only in the early 2000s, long after the pimply-faced angst of that plaid-clad generation had passed. So for me, the 20th anniversary release of a deluxe version of Nirvana’s debut ‘Bleach’ doesn’t evoke any emotional memories. And I’d argue that the fact that my pubescence did not coincide with the release of this album is a good thing — I feel no compulsion to wax pathetic about the good ol’ days. Frankly, if this was the one of the most celebrated releases of the time, then I’m skeptical that those ol’ days were any good at all.

As far as I’m concerned, the blame lies squarely on the folk hero of grunge, Kurt Cobain. The Robin Hood of the printed black rock ‘n’ roll t-shirt industry. The Sylvia Plath of post-stardom implosion — without the poetic prowess. If ever there was an overrated standard bearer for the genre, it’s Kurt. The phrase “it sounds like a dying cat” comes to mind for much of Kurt Cobain’s immelodic squawk that overpowers the album. (Yes, I felt compelled to make up words of my own.) At the time, a generation emerging from the ’80s drunk on the syrup of hair metal and power ballads may have greeted this aesthetic with some relief. But 20 years on, Cobain’s caterwaul on songs like “Negative Creep” sounds horribly dated. And its kitschy angst (“I’m a negative creep, and I’m stoned”) is just funny. He did show a glimpse of his ‘Nevermind’-era songwriting prowess on “About a Girl”, with a sweet, almost pop melody, and perfectly crafted guitar solo. But it’s a mere glimpse.

The cycle of mid-tempo high-schooler riffs and lazy production values gets really tiring after about three songs. (No, it’s not ‘lo-fi’ or ‘indie’. It’s lazy.) Even on tracks like “Sifting”, the heaviness and sludgy depth that Nirvana achieves is violated by unnecessary changes in tempo. They could have evidently done with the more sophisticated grooves of drummer Dave Grohl, but he wasn’t to arrive for a few months.

But as if all this weren’t enough, Sub Pop also gives us the ‘deluxe’ part of this release — a second disc of live tracks. I can’t quite get my head around what an aural assault that particular gig must have been on its attendants. “Spank Thru” is an embarrassing punk-country mash, and Cobain’s careening vocal performance on “Scoff” really reveals the depths of his musical ineptitude at the time.

Yes, I’ve thoroughly trashed the album. I don’t hate Nirvana, and I think that their later offerings like ‘Nevermind’ and ‘Unplugged’ had more than a few gems. But albums like ‘Bleach’ get a 20th anniversary reissue only because people don’t call “bullshit” on the work of an overblown cult hero. It took a new drummer and much more disciplined mainstream producer (Garbage’s Butch Vig) to elicit a half-decent performance out of him on ‘Nevermind’. In their absence, ‘Bleach’ is the kind of release that’s best left in the vault.

Download:About a Girl” · “Scoff (Live)


6 Comments. Post Yours Here.
  1. January 17, 2010, 12:16 pm Soumil

    Fuck You.

  2. January 17, 2010, 3:04 pm Vishal

    Bear in mind that Bleach was recording on a very modest budget of some $600 over a few disjointed sessions. And for a debut album it definitely shows promise even if it isn’t exactly a “classic reissue” album material. Undoubtedly, its for Sub Pop to milk the Nirvana catalog some more. You don’t like the album, fine…you think Nevermind & Unplugged are much better…I agree. But to go out and review an album reissue just to bag it makes no sense to me.

  3. January 17, 2010, 3:09 pm Vishal

    “Spank Thru” is one of Nirvana’s better lighter songs where Kurt doesn’t come across as being whiny. Yes, its about jerking off but I love it.

  4. January 18, 2010, 6:32 am Anand Varghese

    Vishal, just to clarify, I was ASKED to review the album….I didn’t look for an album reissue just for the sake of trashing it. But since I was asked, I could only be honest in my opinions. I try not to froth at the mouth either in praise or criticism, but there was so little that was redeemable about the album, in my mind. And to the point, it would be just as unfair for me to review an album just because I like it.

    And, as critical as I am of the music, I am more pissed off about the phenomenon that you just pointed out: Sub Pop’s milking of the Nirvana catalogue. And the reason that there’s a market for this indulgent reissue is the cult status given to Cobain. The only way Sub Pop gets away with this kind of behaviour is because of the rabid, uncritical embrace of all of Cobain’s material – as reflected in the pithy but fairly vapid comment left by our comrade Soumil.

  5. January 19, 2010, 2:59 pm Soumil

    In addition to the modest budget, the album was recorded in 30 straight hours, and for that I believe you need to be a really tight act, not the best one. Smells like teen spirit would have never been written, had Cobain not initiated from scratch. It’s dirty and raw, and certainly not the best, but doesn’t deserve all the catcalls either.

  6. January 29, 2010, 5:26 pm Shawn Sequeira

    For all the backlash, I’m pretty sure ‘Bleach’ was written for a reason – just the way Anand has punched in this review. Anand’s primary gripe is the bastardization of cult pop culture. And Nirvana is no stranger to it. We’ve had bands and musicians who continue to milk the cash cow even though they (if they were alive) would deny to do so.

    This blame should be aimed at the record company. Not the band.

    Nirvana’s music was undeniably ground-breaking and relevant for the period it was born and bred in. ‘Bleach’, although raw and unashamedly harsh, set a footprint for future Nirvana releases – hallmark of any good band trying to find their feet and their sound.

    And if Grohl’s addition meant anything to ‘Nevermind’, only Mr.Cobain could tell. And there in lies the fun.

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