I wasn’t going to bother doing a review of the re-release of Nirvana’s 1989 Sub Pop debut Bleach because usually I don’t find re-releases worthy of that much attention. Most times reissues seem to just be slightly tweaked or ‘remastered’ versions of the original, with maybe two or three ‘exclusive’ photos thrown into the liner notes for kicks. The reissue of Bleach, however, COMPLETELY bucks that trend. This new version has to be the best possible package the folks behind this could have released.
Anyone who appreciates quality music knows how good Nirvana was. Sure, there are those who can’t get past Kurt Cobain’s moodiness, his supposed lack of guitar skills, or are tired of hearing Lithium, Come As You Are, Rape Me, and Smells like Teen Spirit on modern rock radio all the time. To me, though, Nirvana is one of the most important bands ever, and I wasn’t even old enough to appreciate them when they were around.
In Utero is arguably Nirvana's crowning achievement, but I appreciate Bleach for being a groundbreaking record to emerge from the flannelled, grimy suburbanite hub of the Pacific Northwest in 1989. On this new edition, the songs have been re-tooled and sound infinitely crisper and crunchy than they did previously. Before, I didn’t really care much for Bleach since the recording quality was so notoriously bad (they recorded the album for $606). For comparison’s sake, it seems that most artists today waste that much on a few hours of Autotune studio time, so there’s some (admittedly exaggerated) perspective.
A lot has been said already over the years about the actual album itself. Where this reissue really shines, though, is in the live songs added to the collection from a previously unreleased show in Portland in 1990. The quality of the songs here is astounding. They almost sound better than the studio cuts. AND there are live versions of both Sappy and Molly’s Lips, which I haven’t heard before on any official Nirvana release. Sappy, in particular, is incredible, and I am really glad they included it, as it’s always been one of my favorite Nirvana songs that never receives much credit.
Kurt sounds great on the live set, and for the most part his guitar work is solid, except when the songs call for frantic dissonant shredding and spastic free-form weirdness, at which he excelled. The only Nirvana ‘hit’ on this set is About a Girl, since the other big fancy major label songs hadn’t existed yet. The set’s last song, Blew, concludes with the cacophony of sound that happens when Kurt, Krist Novoselic and then-drummer Chad Channing smash things to bits, a ritual that the band (and Dave Grohl once he showed up) would carry on to their days as The Biggest Band in the World. It adds a powerful sense of finality to a raucous, explosive live set that is quite something to behold. Too bad they didn’t release it as a DVD.
The album booklet is filled with a treasure trove of Nirvana promo/live photos that people haven’t seen before…hell, there’s even a photocopy of some random notes and Nirvana’s recording contract with Sub Pop. That’s about as ‘rare, unreleased, and exclusive’ as you can get. In some of the other photos, Krist has funny hair and Kurt SMILES. That’s something you don’t really see in most Nirvana books/pictures/etc, since he eventually felt so sick to the pit of his burning, nauseous stomach from all the attention and Courtney Love’s nonsense that he stopped smiling or being happy altogether.
This is really an excellent, well-thought-out treat for Nirvana fanboys such as myself. I was never old enough to experience the band live, and all I have instead are bootlegs and the occasional DVD release (as long as Courtney green lights it and cashes those checks, of course).
In today’s wasteland of popular music, where most of what is trendy and successful is shamefully unimaginative and soaked in vapidity, bands like Nirvana just cannot be forgotten. Kurt Cobain’s earnest dissatisfaction with himself, his surroundings, and life in general that only got worse as he attained more and more acclaim and respect, is reflected in the dirty, (forgive me) grungy, passionate music that he and his band created.
While Bleach isn’t quite as polished or mainstream as Nevermind or the singles from In Utero, it is still an important part of Nirvana’s career. Hidden beneath the muddled, feedback-y layers of songs such as School and Swap Meet are indications of a band primed to breakout in a major way, which Nirvana of course did.
Before that breakout was Bleach, an album which laid the foundation for what Nirvana and their ‘grunge’ contemporaries would become, and thanks to Sub Pop Records, it is now available for people to appreciate and add to their collections in a whole new way.