Nirvana’s Debut Album “Bleach” Is A Masterpiece


As detestable as I find the word “grunge” to be–in the sense of a genre–due to its commercialization, there’s no denying that its origins in the mid to late 80s saw some seminal releases. Tracing its origins to the band Green River in 1984, the genre soon spun off to encompass a wide variety of bands and an even wider array of sounds. As such, I want to start off the music review section by reviewing one of grunge’s earlier albums and Nirvana’s debut album release, Bleach.

Bleach, released thirty years ago on June 15th 1989, followed the releases of, and largely captured the aesthetic of, previous releases including Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff, Soundgarden’s Screaming Life, Ultramega OK, Louder than Love, and Alice in Chains’ Publisher Demo. The album was recorded over a series of studio sessions between very early 1988 and the first months of 1989 at Reciprocal Studios, one of the mainstay studios in the early Seattle grunge scene. The band’s initial release, somewhat to frontman Kurt Cobain’s dismay, strayed very closely to the punk rock roots of the genre’s origins, something which sets the album apart from the very poppy Nevermind in 1991 and 1993’s experimental In Utero. The first song on the track, Blew, opens up the album with a dirty bass riff on a C-tuned E string, exposing the listener to the meaty and down-tuned riffs that compose most of the scene’s music.

After being opened to Blew‘s catchy riffs and self-deprecating vocals about failure on the part of Cobain, the listener is treated to a drum-heavy, palm-muted song called Floyd the Barber which serves as one big, twisted joke describing Cobain’s murder at the hands of the aforementioned Floyd the Barber from the 1960s comedy show, The Andy Griffith Show. While the lyrics are rather meaningless to an ulterior motive beyond being funny in a disturbing sense, the instrumentals that include drumwork by the Melvins’ drummer, Dale Crover, serve to put even some of the hardest songs off of other contemporary grunge pieces to shame. From Floyd, the listener transitions into a love piece called About a Girl, a Beatles-esque ballad written by Kurt sometime in 1988 after listening to 1964’s Meet the Beatles! About a Girl’s poppy chord progression and bass groove certainly makes it stand out amid the heavier, seriously distorted punk rock throughout the rest of the album and reflects Kurt’s issues amid a failing relationship. School follows About a Girl, a simplistic grunge song comprising of four lines of lyrics, tight drumming and serious hammering of the guitar strings. School is followed by a cover song, a fast-paced cover of Love Buzz by Dutch psychedelic rock band Shocking Blue. Love Buzz‘s funky bass riff and technical guitar riffage offer a unique spin on the original song and also make it a stand out from the album, probably a leading reason as to why the song was released as a single as Nirvana’s debut release in November 1988.

Paper Cuts, the only song in Nirvana’s entire discography to feature the word nirvana, is a very slow and heavy song describing a supposed Aberdeen urban legend about a child or children kept locked up by their parents, and the disturbing instrumentation reflects the story well. Paper Cuts is quickly followed by the song Negative Creep which, while also paying homage to Mudhoney’s Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More also shares style with extreme metal band Celtic Frost, from where the inspiration came from. Negative Creep‘s drop-D tuning and use of feedback and distortion sets it up not only as a a great grunge piece but as a solid heavy metal song as well. Following an instrumental fade away, the album slides into the song Scoff through a hard drum beat featuring heavy use of toms and snares on the drums and a very rhythmic chord progression; a standout song with lyrics focusing on abuse of a son at the hands of an alcoholic father, one of a number of themes explored by Cobain in his songs throughout most of Nirvana’s discography.

Swap Meet, a song focusing on a young couple’s love, not only displays Cobain’s technical abilities on guitar and drummer Chad Channing’s furious drumming, but displays the origins of Cobain’s storytelling based on his own experiences and fears which would become more prominent in Nirvana’s second and better-selling album, NevermindSwap Meet is followed by the album’s penultimate song, Mr. Moustache, another song in the style of hardcore punk music focusing on power chords and a hypnotic main riff which hooks the listener in immediately. In a lambast against his father and the stereotype of macho men portrayed in mainstream American culture, Cobain offers a poetic look into his own philosophies on what it means to be a man while giving the listener serious groove on the lower strings of the guitar.

Swap Meet is followed by the album’s last song, a five-minute-long piece called Sifting. While rather musically boring, the song offers a look inside the band’s punk ideals of resistance to authority and social norms. Sifting fails to really offer as much as any other song on the album, however Cobain’s vocals are as strong as ever on this sludge-metal piece.

Though it may end with a slow fade as opposed to a bang, Bleach‘s sound is unmatched by most other releases from the scene at the time, and although not the critical success of the more mainstream Nevermind, it serves as one of the defining releases of late 1980s grunge, and a great start to the short but star-studded career of Nirvana as a whole. This release is a masterpiece from start to finish, and even the weaker songs aren’t inherently bad– just rather forgettable; which is a shame, especially when taking into consideration the type of songwriting ability possessed by frontman Kurt Cobain and the ability of all the band members featured on the recording (bassist Krist Novoselic and drummers Chad Channing and Dale Crover). This album falls just short of perfect but is by no means worse because of that, and deserves a solid 8/10 on an abstract numerical rating score chart. If you like hard-hitting instrumentals, a disturbed version of Jim Morrison’s poetry and storytelling, and the feel of late 80s punk rock and grunge, Bleach is definitely an album you should be checking out.

Memorable Songs: Basically any besides Sifting and Paper Cuts

Forgettable: Basically none besides Sifting and Paper Cuts