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Nirvana’s ‘Bleach’: Murky sludge that should be more than afterthought

Unfairly or not, Nirvana’s debut album Bleach is inevitably compared to Nirvana’s other two studio albums, Nevermind and In Utero.  This really isn’t a fair comparison, as both Nevermind and In Utero were recorded at big studios with big budgets under the watchful eye of a big label (although Steve Albini’s production of In Utero preferred rough edges over polish).

Bleach, on the other hand, was recorded at a small studio by a local producer known for raw recordings, all for a price almost usurped by my monthly apartment rent ($606.17).  Sure, Bleach was recorded by the same band that ultimately did Nevermind and In Utero (although Dave Grohl was not a member of the band for Bleach), so it’s kind of like comparing apples to oranges.

Still, compared to Nevermind and In Utero, Bleach is pretty solid.  And attempting to look at it as a standalone statement makes it look even better.

Bleach is the only album where Nirvana was a grunge band.  The album is steeped in Pacific Northwest murkiness on songs like “Blew” and “Love Buzz” – the album’s only cover song – and mired in a slow, stank sludge on songs like “Sifting” and “Floyd the Barber.”  In this way Nirvana fit right in with other Sub-Pop bands like Soundgarden and Mudhoney, but several songs on Bleach also hint at what Nirvana’s future output will be like.

About a Girl” sounds like a R.E.M. song minus Peter Buck’s guitar arpeggio, and is the only song on the album where the guitar isn’t distorted (lasting until the guitar solo).  “About a Girl” is poppy, but doesn’t necessarily sound like anything else Nirvana ever released again.  If anything, the song showed Kurt Cobain was an actual songwriter instead of just a riff-maker/screamer.

Mr. Moustache” is fast, riff-oriented, and catchy.  At the same time it’s dissonant in its “easier than an easy-chair” chorus, and in that way it’s similar to pretty much the entirety of Nirvana’s future album In Utero.

Big Cheese” – a bonus track recorded during the Bleach sessions – is noisy and slightly poppy, which summarizes much of the material Nirvana produced between Bleach and Nevermind, most of which showed up on the B-side album Incesticide (of which “Big Cheese” was also a track, oddly enough).

When I first bought Bleach, I remember seeing a sticker on it saying “Nirvana’s first album.” It’s not game-changing like Nevermind or as riotous as In Utero, but Bleach should be far from an afterthought in Nirvana’s catalog.  Bleach was an album that pointed the way for Nirvana, showing just what the band might be capable of some day.

Rating: 4 out of 5


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