Nirvana: Bleach (20th Anniversary Reissue)
I’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.