Sunday, June 20, 2010

Nirvana - Bleach (20th Anniversary Edition)

Nirvana - Bleach (20th Anniversary Edition)

I never held Bleach in much esteem. Without the subsequent triumphs of later albums, my thinking went, Nirvana's first studio effort would have most likely drifted out of the public consciousness, and its importance mostly lies as an artifact for die hard Nirvana fans only. Sub-Pop's reissue of Nirvana's first album, then, provides an excellent opportunity, not just to bask in the new high fi sheen of the album, but also to reassess Bleach's place within Nirvana's catalogue and within the rock and roll canon.

Of course, what you'll notice first is the tremendous clean up job Sup-Pop managed on this recording. From the initial intro of "Blew's" rising and falling bass line to Cobain's growl on album closer, "Downer," the entire album sounds much deeper and more compelling. Noveselic's bass and Channing's drums are given the their appropriate place alongside Cobain's lyrics and guitar, a reminder that Nirvana was always more than just a charismatic front man.

The jump in sound quality allowed me to really appreciate some of the slower numbers on the album. Before the reissue, I always considered it hopelessly front loaded-some great tracks in the first half ("Blew," "About a Girl," and "School") but tended to lose itself towards the end. The remastered sound helped me appreciate the way that Nirvana was playing around with texture on the album. "Paper Cuts," for instance, begins with the gnarled sounds of stiffled guitar and feedback while Cobain does a sing-scream call and response. These moments of aggression are offset by twin verses that break into shimmering guitars and a classic Nevermind-like melody, which, of course, are distorted once again into the "ugly" moments. It took the reissue to really show me how much Nirvana could accomplish on a song like this with only three members.

In fact, the reissue brings out much of the metallic psychedelia that pervades the album. Tracks that once seemed like misfits, "About a Girl" and "Love Buzz," now sound like an extension of the 60s psychedelia that clearly influenced the album. "About a Girl" now sounds like one of the pretty songs the Beatles might insert on their later more drug influence (or drug enhanced if you like) work, much like how "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," precedes "Happiness is a Warm Gun" on the White Album. "About a Girl's" twisted use of a love song melody to sing about a prostitute speaks to the death of a sixties, and the album's discontinuity between faux-naivete and pounding metal might be viewed as a continuation of that theme.

Cobain spoke of and wrote about the missed opportunities of the 1960s cultural revolution that appeared to die an ugly death a decade later. And one cannot help but imagine a burnt out hippie when Cobain sings "They make their living with arts and crafts / The kinds with seashells, driftwood and burlap" on "Swap Meet." "Sifting," with its hypnotizingly slow progression and intonation of what "teacher said" and "preacher said," could have been written by Jefferson Airplane in an alternate universe where they were somehow heavily influence by the Melvins. Breaking the five minute mark, "Sifting" is the longest cut on the album and its bridge is augmented by notes bent into ghostly moans and echoes, suggesting the kind of bad trip Peter Fonda experienced in Easy Rider.

Revisiting Bleach after all these years proved to be much more beneficial than I would have thought. The reissue has allowed me to come to terms, unexpected ways, with an album I never truly knew what to do with in. In a sense Bleach provides not only evidence of where Nirvana came from, but also perhaps where the band might return to if only given enough time. I can no longer see Bleach as merely a peripheral album from a band who could go on to do bigger and better things, but can now confidently assert that even without the chart topping sequels, overfilled arenas and countless magazine covers, to this day Bleach would be treated as the diamond in the rough that it truly is.

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