Nirvana: Bleach - Album Of The Week Club review

Beneath the wilfully grubby production, Nirvana's debut album Bleach seethes with confidence, intelligence, star quality and pop sensibility

Nirvana: Bleach cover art
(Image: © Sub Pop)

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Nirvana: Bleach

Nirvana: Bleach cover art

(Image credit: Sub Pop)

Floyd the Barber
About a Girl
Love Buzz
Paper Cuts
Negative Creep
Swap Meet
Mr. Moustache

With hindsight, it’s easy to see Bleach as merely Nirvana’s caustic baby steps. But the signs of stardom to come were already there, not least in the subtle, delicate About A Girl, which was so accomplished a song that it was chosen to open their Unplugged live set four years and two mega-selling albums later.

Even at Bleach’s rawest, as on the raging, chaotic Negative Creep, the album seethes with confidence, intelligence and star quality, the songwriting already so nuanced and packed with pop hooks that their breakthrough to the mainstream makes perfect sense. 

In 2014 Queens Of The Stone Age frontman Josh Homme told Rolling Stone, “The first time I heard Bleach, I remember turning to my friends and saying, 'We gotta start writing better songs.' Listening to Negative Creep and School and Love Buzz, I thought there were three different singers in the band. It was a total perspective-changer – it definitely ripped a sheet of paper off of my mental notepad."

"I remember thinking it all sounded so unbelievably violent," says Frank Carter. "It’s not really, though. They’re all sort of pop songs, in a way. That was the way Kurt Cobain wrote songs, they all had this real pop sensibility to them. His songwriting was incredibly special, but, because of the way the guitars and the drums were, it’s a hard listen. It’s a fucking tough pill to swallow, but it’s all there."

Follow-ups Nevermind and In Utero may get all the attention, but Bleach is an overlooked gem.

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Other albums released in June 1989

  • Agent Orange - Sodom
  • Flowers in the Dirt - Paul McCartney
  • Passion - Peter Gabriel
  • In Step - Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble
  • World in Motion - Jackson Browne
  • Trouble in Angel City - Lion
  • Extreme Aggression - Kreator
  • Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe - Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe
  • Mr. Big - Mr. Big
  • The Real Thing - Faith No More
  • Cosmic Thing - The B-52s
  • The End of the Innocence - Don Henley
  • The Iron Man: The Musical - Pete Townshend
  • Magnum Cum Louder - Hoodoo Gurus
  • Margin Walker - Fugazi


What they said...

"Cut for about 600 dollars in Jack Endino's studio over just a matter of days, this captures Nirvana at a formative stage, still indebted to the murk that became known as grunge, yet not quite finding their voice as songwriters. Which isn't to say that they were devoid of original material, since even at this stage Kurt Cobain illustrated signs of his considerable songcraft." (AllMusic)

"Many of the songs on Bleach are quite good, and at least one – the jangly Beatles-esque anomaly About a Girl – is great. Still, the album has also has its share of flaws. Repetitiveness is a recurring problem on Bleach, namely in School and Negative Creep, the latter of which would be a far stronger track if the verse and chorus sections didn’t go on forever." (Pop Matters)

"For all the talk of Nirvana being paradigm shifters, Bleach is not the sound of the bloated corpse of rock’n’roll being dragged around by the barbarians who stormed the gates. The album’s best song, About A Girl, could be a Hollies or Knickerbockers b-side. Cobain’s guitar owes an evident debt to Black Sabbath and The Stooges, not to mention Meat Puppets II and Black Flag’s My War." (Uncut)


What you said...

Greg Schwepe: For many of us music geeks in the Classic Rock Magazine Album of the Week Club, we pride ourselves on following the arc of bands from their first album to their last album. Or their first album to their most recent one; which might have been over 10 years ago! And while I have no scientific proof, I’m going to wager a bet that for most us here, our first dip in the “Nirvana Pool” was Nevermind (the one with the pool on the cover!) and not Bleach. But for those that got in the “pool” ahead of us with Bleach, they got to enjoy a little bonus.

So, like many, my first Nirvana purchase was Nevermind followed by In Utero and MTV Unplugged In New York right at their releases. Not ever having “gone backward” to check out Bleach, I am now in a unique situation to hear “the one before the one for the first time. Kind of like knowing how the movie ends right as it’s starting. Little did we know the effect that Nirvana would have on popular music a few years after the release of Bleach.

Is Bleach a harbinger of great things to come? Yes. No. Maybe. Are there songs and features of Bleach that make you think “Oh, this band is gonna be huge?” Yes. No. Maybe. Is it better produced and sonically better than I expected from an indie label release? Yes. Are the songs presented in a manner that keep me interested? Yes, by a long shot. Do I think this album will make me forget everything else and think they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread? No. After listening to this would I check my local record store constantly to see when the next Nirvana album might come out? Yes.

Overall, I like loud, catchy guitar-based rock. And Kurt Cobain’s nice chunky guitar riffs just keep coming from one song to the next. That alone kept me engaged for the 13 tracks and roughly 42 minutes. Back to song structure, I swear if you “Un-Grunge” a few of these songs, you have a killer Cheap Trick song. Guitar riffs, format, chord progression; seem very similar to me. I’m not usually one to dissect the lyrics too much, so I can’t get all philosophical on what I think Kurt is trying to tell us.

And not having been on a Nirvana kick for a while, I revisited In Utero after I listened to this, and I almost think I like Bleach a little better (after another listen I might change my mind). Again, back to the Cheap Trick comparison, Bleach has a power pop vibe to it. I mean, I could hear Rick Nielsen riffing on Swap Meet and Robin Zander singing About A Girl. 8 out of 10 for me on the Nirvana album I should’ve checked out before.

Adam McCann: Great album, raw, heavy and noisy. Although the band would go much sleeker for the follow up, they lost the primal energy of this album. Plus Channing's drumming is massively underrated. An absolute solid debut.

Dave Hinsley: Excellent! Full marks!

Glen Gearing: Always loved this album, you could tell they had something to sit up and take notice of. However, if they had not released Nevermind, they would've probably dissolved into obscurity amongst the masses of alternative bands of the day. If it wasn't them, it would've been somebody else.

Ian Marples: I bought this on import in 89 - loved it, still gets a regular spin now.

Pete Delgado: Great album! An amazing debut!

Bryan Aguilar: Excellent album. Apparently the lyrics were almost all written the night before, but I couldn’t imagine more perfect lyrics to fit the music.

Oscar Frank: I was never a fan of their music. I do like some songs and never bothered sitting down and give them a good listen. Over the years I've started to enjoy bands I didn't like before, and it's time I gave them another chance. There has to be something there that makes me go "Ahhhh... That's what it's all bout". 

Paul Stevens: Their best album. Was really disappointed when Nevermind came out; far too overproduced compared to this one.

Dan Holm: I never got it. Liked Pearl Jam, but most of it? Now Alice in Chains, I thought, put the grunge bands to shame.

Chris Elliott: It's an interesting debut - occasionally you can hear the potential - and About a Girl could with decent production go straight onto Nevermind. Equally there's a couple of truly rough moments.

Like most Sub Pop it's more myth than substance. The standard Sub Pop production method was always lo-fi - and it doesn't suit everything. It has moments but spends a lot of time being a second rate Sonic Youth / Dinosaur Jr - and it never quite decides what it is as a record.

This shows potential but that's about it.

At the time in the UK the Indie Scene was generally vibrant and diverse - house was hitting it's creative peak, and certainly 89/90 this was okay but hardly essential to my ears. The jump between this and Nevermind was stratospheric.

John Davidson: While Nirvana after Nevermind got all the media plaudits I always preferred Soundgarden, AiC and Pearl Jam. Bleach (like Nevermind) contains a couple of interesting tracks and a whole bunch I don't particularly care for. The good tracks aren't quite as punchy as Come As You Are or Teen Spirit, hence 7/10.

Meldon Brindley: Not a big Nirvana fan, and this did not help. Some good riffs and interesting vocals.

Mike Canoe: I found Nevermind such a bitter disappointment (one generation-defining single, a few other good songs, lotsa crap) that I never really listened to Nirvana again until my son got into them about a quarter century later.

Bleach is a much heavier album than I thought Nirvana was capable of. I always felt they were the odd band out of the "Big 4" of grunge bands, but here, for better or worse, they fit in more closely with the Pacific Northwest sound.

Sometimes it comes across as little more than mimicry, like Negative Creep's repeated refrain of "Daddy's little girl ain't a girl no more,” which essentially rephrases Mudhoney's Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More from the year before. Even the photograph on the album cover, taken by Cobain's then-girlfriend, is similarly composed to Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff, shot by photographer, Charles Peterson, who was integral to the look of both the Sub Pop label and the whole Seattle scene.

I was also surprised to find that bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Chad Channing were pretty decent musicians, since conventional wisdom suggested Novoselic was primarily there as a sort of comfort animal for Kurt Cobain and Cobain's disappointment with Channing's drumming is why Dave Grohl got the call.

But probably the biggest surprise is Cobain's voice which is frequently more of a harsh bark than the whining howl that became his calling card. About a Girl is still the only song that sounds like what I would call a typical Nirvana song. Well, Paper Cuts does too but that's not meant as a good thing.

While the lyrics were apparently written off the cuff, I like Scoff (the "gimme back my alcohol" song) and the almost hardcore closer, Downer.

Then there is the song off Bleach that I absolutely love, their cover of Shocking Blue's Love Buzz. A lost power pop gem, it's about as atypically upbeat and non-cynical as you could get from the hairshirt-sporting Nirvana that some of us would grow to know and love. While they didn't write it, it showed they could successfully play a pop tune on their terms.

It just wasn't long before they (or Cobain) didn't want to anymore.


Final score: 6.81 (137 votes cast, total score 933)

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