Contrary to popular assumption, there was life before Nevermind. It consisted of a meagre $606.17 recording budget, and a rough, raging, rebellious statement of intent. It’s the album that was initially regarded as an amateurish, coarse precursor to what is a seminal popularisation of the Seattle grunge movement. Now, twenty years on and with the benefit of hindsight, Bleach is a fundamental foundation stone, a determining monster of an album in its own right.
Re-mastered by original producer Jack Endino, the godfather of grunge, rather than compromising the unrefined, raw noise of the 1989 production, Endino remains faithful to the hard rock, punk, pop distortion principles that were invoked two decades prior. Album opener ‘Blew’ still has a grimy, sultry bassline that snakes around meandering verses, percussion that pounds the back of your eardrums and choruses that showcase the finer points of Kurt Cobain’s cutthroat, emotive howls that rasp, roar and shriek all at once. This concoction of crushing vocals recurrently finds a vehicle in songs such as ‘School’, which teams a fuzzy, grizzly undulating guitar line with guttural groans, and ‘Paper Cuts’, with its oscillations between composed cultic chanting and shrill yells that break with emotion.
The influences and contemporaries are manifest; as the bass lines relentlessly wrench guts and shudder throughout tracks, the marriage of feedback and distortion is still going as strong as it was twenty years ago, as songs from ‘Negative Creep’ to ‘Scoff’ are redolent of the authority of bands ranging from Black Flag to Butthole Surfers, The Stooges to Sonic Youth. Yet Nirvana aren’t simply the demonstrators of abrasive grunge and garage, as Bleach reveals a recognition of the power of pop music as well. ‘About A Girl’, one of the more ubiquitous songs in their back-catalogue, is a product of an afternoon spent listening to Meet The Beatles! on repeat, a jangly ballad with marked percussion that harbours a shivering beat. ‘Love Buzz’, a cover of Dutch band Shocking Blue, shares similar pop sensibilities, as clean, crisp, catchy bass is layered with distorted guitars and complementary shredding.
The deluxe 20th anniversary edition is also accompanied by a previously unreleased recording of a gig played in February 1990 in Portland, Oregon, entitled Live At Alpine Street. As well as recapping the tracks on Bleach, the bonus disc also includes recordings of ‘Spank Thru’, ‘Sappy’, Incesticide‘s ‘Dive’ and an insanely infectious cover of the Vaseline’s ‘Molly’s Lips’. The live tracks are a welcome addition to the album, capturing perfectly the energy derived from Nirvana’s music; stirring, bitter and rousing, and a reminder that Cobain is a linchpin in the expression of passionate, sarcastic, instinctive human emotion. For some, this re-release will be an introduction to an influential and arguably near-perfect LP. For many, it’s simply a reminder of the energy, passion and propulsion that Nirvana harnessed from the very beginning.