Nirvana Bleach: Deluxe Edition Review

Released 2009.  

BBC Review

An unheard live set makes this album worth investing in again.

Mike Diver 2009

With its title derived from a poster advising heroin users to bleach their needles before use, it’s easy to look back at Nirvana’s debut album of 1989 – famously recorded for just $606 – and conclude that all the warning signs were there. Collapse was inevitable, disaster just over the horizon. But then you listen to the record and fall in love, again, with a collection of scrappy, scratchy songs that comprised the foundation for one of the best rock albums of all time.

That bona-fide classic is Nevermind, of course – Nirvana’s 1991 release elevated the trio of Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic (Chris at the time) and Dave Grohl to superstar status, aided in no small way by the runaway success of Smells Like Teen Spirit and the reach of MTV. But Bleach is an angrier, fidgety affair; it’s the sound of a hungry band putting all they’ve got into sessions they couldn’t afford to repeat. As such, compared to its successor it’s a rough-edged listen, and the actual songwriting on show is at a developing stage, a lack of sing-along choruses limiting its mainstream reach. But the promise that sweats out from the cracks between songs, between the fractured riffs and guttural screams of Paper Cuts, the frenetic flailing of Swap Meet and the affectingly understated ardour of About a Girl, is incredible.

Cobain told Spin magazine, four years after Bleach’s release, that many of its lyrics were throwaway, often written hours before recording. He had a point – there’s not a great deal that’s especially memorable – but the way Cobain delivers his syllables is perfectly indicative of how he must’ve felt at the time: disenchanted and disenfranchised, ostracised and alone. Finding love, and seeing his band rise through the ranks, would lead to a different-sounding Nirvana on their next album, but here there’s a real sense that the writing comes from the darkest pit at the bottom of an acid-ravaged stomach. And this was before the heroin really took hold.

Though a historically significant recording given what followed it, Bleach is the least-essential of Nirvana’s three studio albums. What makes this deluxe reissue worth the money, though, is the inclusion of a live set from 1990. Previously unreleased, the band’s set at the Pine Street Theatre, Portland is an arresting listen, featuring pre-Bleach numbers Sappy and Spank Thru. Turn it up loud and lose yourself in the ferment.

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