In early June, 1989 Seattle outfit Nirvana released their relatively low-key debut album on the up and coming alternative label Sub-Pop.
It will read like madness, but at the time – the label was much bigger than the band. Music scenes were changing fast, you could actually feel it. A 2nd wave of hardcore punk was nearing the end of its logical course, thrash music had just gone overground and more experimental music was coming to the fore.
The likes of American artists such as the Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth and Bongwater via the labels Blast First and Shimmy Disk had paved the way for the Sub-Pop acts which were spawning at speed. UK bands such as Spacemen 3 and Loop where in the same kind of area to an extent.
Mudhoney and Tad really were the two key Sub-Pop bands at the time Bleach dropped with the former band out in front by some margin.
The first time I saw the album cover to Bleach I thought ‘Nirvana’ – isn’t that a song by The Cult? I considered, wrongly, that the band were a mere Mudhoney clone. The album cover for Bleach does look similar to Mudhoney’s debut E.P. ‘Superfuzz Bigmuff”. Mudhoney were a welcome Stooges garage punk offering that added the speed of punk with some chaotic guitars.
It took a while to getting round to having the opportunity to listen to Bleach. Records were expensive and no one had the album. Then, about September ’89 a mate bought the album. EVERYONE taped that album and just listened.
At first Bleach is not as accesible as Superfuzz Bigmuff. Then, like with all good albums, after about three listens its much deeper layers became all too apparent.
Blew starts with a bass tuned very low. The track slowly winds around and builds with guarded pessimism and doom. Unlike other Sub-Pop acts Nirvana actually sound Sabbath-esque – this is not a bad thing.
Floyd The Barber has the low slung chug of thrash but sounds quite uniquely different to any thrash band. Again the pace is slow and drums are used to very good effect.
About A Girl on first listen sounds whimsical. Then, after like 3 listens you realise just what a great song it is. Painfully earnest soft intro leads into a fuller richer more urgent sound and it finally clicks that we have the Sub-Pop Beatles on our turntables.
School then ups the stakes by mixing the whole formula that has gone before. Catchy, doomy, heavy yet a killer chorus and hook. Angular guitar breaks and the song interluding saw chaos at Nirvana gigs when they played this track. Mudwho?
Love Buzz with its near Eastern vibe again lays down a heavy Sub-Pop mantle. You can almost hear Nirvana struggle with this song yet at the same time it kind of feels like they know exactly where they are at.
Paper Cuts heads to that heavier plodding sound. Not the catchiest track on the album yet it effortlessly canters past R.E.M. with its breakdowns even if this was never the bands intention.
Negative Creep has a fast heavy chug that canters along with Kurt Cobain rattling out a fantastic vocal performance. The hook of the track also saw it become a live classic. Boasting aside, anyone that saw early Nirvana gigs will enthuse about it being just a great time in music and this band delivered in spades.
Scoff has a near Butthole Surfers sound that veers into the more appealing Nirvana formula. It twists and turns as it drives constantly forwards.
Swap Meet has a raw sound that inspires one to pick up an instrument. There’s no better seal of approval than a great band making you think ‘I can do that’. Of course, the reality is you can’t – but hey the simplicity of this song makes you try.
Mr. Moustache bleeds away with yet another twisting hook. The vocals again veer a lot yet always sound so damn earnest and delivered with real painful angst. When we lost Mr. Cobain, we lost one of the very best ya know’.
Sifting slowly burns Bleach to a halt. The track is very bogged down but rises quite gloriously with the ‘Don’t have nothing for you’ vocal delivery. That summarises the album really. A bogged down, earnest, heavy debut where one notices the vocalist has something really quite special.
With the benefit of time the band outgrew the label and their peers with remarkable ease. Of their three studio albums Bleach is their 2nd best but that is just my opinion and it hardly matters at all. It’s a great debut album but I still find it hard to listen to Nirvana without thinking what might have been, I guess that goes beyond the music too…