34 Years Ago, The Most Important ‘90s Rock Band Dropped A Messy And Prescient Album
Without the 1989 release of Bleach, Nirvana simply wouldn’t exist.
Before Kurt Cobain sang “entertain us!” as a kind of threat in 1991, his immortal band Nirvana dropped an album in the last year of the ‘80s which offered a strange and counterintuitive road map for the small and dismissed grunge scene to take over music in America. On June 15, 1989, Nirvana released Bleach, a debut album that attracted little to nothing in the way of mainstream attention or validation upon its release. In many ways, it still hasn’t. But the kernels of genius within heralded Nevermind, their pivotal album released two years later. Bleach deserves its place on the rock history shelf and your vinyl collection — an album that your kids might not ever understand, but deserve an introduction to. This is what musical freedom sounds like — loud, messy, and troubled, with flashes of brilliance.
In the college/alternative rock scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s, where Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain learned his craft and came of age, being commercially successful was generally, if not invariably, seen as a moral failure. Musicians like Cobain were supposed to be motivated by art and self-expression, not by the same desire to make money and attain the trappings of wealth and fame that motivate seemingly everyone in capitalist societies.
As such, Bleach didn’t bother to cater to anyone but its twenty-two-year-old creator, only a few years removed from his teenage years and high school.
Cobain was precociously talented but he was also only a few years out of teendom and as such Bleach feels like the work of someone still immersed in the intense emotional maelstrom of adolescence. The Nirvana icon was legendary for writing lyrics that beg for interpretation — are they deep and profound, or nonsensical? The lyrics to Bleach lean toward the latter. He alternates between defiantly nonsensical phrases and those that are, if anything, overly direct, like “Negative Creep.” That trademark exercise in performative self-loathing has a buzzsaw hook and an all too relatable chorus where Cobain yells, “I’m a negative creep and I’m stoned!”
Bleach heralded the coming years where noise, volume, and energy will win out over polish and professionalism in mainstream music. But Bleach is happily, even innocently, not mainstream. It’s Nirvana at its noisiest, loudest, sludgy-est, and angriest — an incoherent howl of rage from one of rock’s most sanctified sufferers.
So besides In Utero and Nevermind is Bleach an album that deserves a place in the canon – a necessary introduction to Nirvana-curious kids? There’s no question. You undoubtedly want to start with Nevermind or, for the younger ones, Unplugged. Get them hooked and then when they’re ready, give it to them: “You have no idea how crazy this band really was — or how wild and free music could be when I was a kid.” American millennial parents one and all lived through a time when the idea of music as an art form versus a commercial enterprise was very much being called into question. To understand the distinction between art and commerce is a good lesson — one laid out so clearly in Bleach.
Disclaimer: Your kid might not like Bleach. Well, neither did Cobain. He was in a bad headspace when he wrote it and apparently came up with lyrics the night before recordings. But you can’t argue at least one spot of genius: “About a Girl” is autobiographical and tender in a way nothing else on the album is. The preeminent pop martyr felt pressure to conform to the emerging loud, heavy, and defiantly non-commercial grunge scene but “About a Girl” is unabashedly a great pop song from what would soon become a great pop band. And yet, with “About a Girl” Cobain stops slouching about belligerently and invests his tender heart and soul into the first song to really illustrate what Nirvana was capable of.
The other standout from Bleach is “Love Buzz”, a ferocious cover of a 1969 song by Dutch psychedelic rock band Blue Cheer. Like “About a Girl”, “Love Buzz” finds inspiration a million miles away from the unrelenting pessimism and sonic sludge of Grunge. Among his many other admirable qualities, Cobain had impeccable and sometimes obscure taste in music and covers. He made The Meat Puppets and The Vaselines famous by performing their songs. Cobain does the same for Blue Cheer on Bleach and “Love Buzz.” The song allows Cobain to temporarily escape the bratty nihilism of the rest of the album and be goofy, hot, and incongruously groovy.
Bleach is the archetypal raw, promising debut. Nevermind, which came out just two years after Bleach, represented a huge leap in the band’s evolution. Cobain was no longer handcuffed to the noisy joylessness of grunge purity. Three factors pulled Cobain and Nirvana irrevocably in the direction of pop stardom. This is when Channing was replaced with the much more versatile, pop-friendly drummer in Dave Grohl. The group hooked up with producer Vig, who made them slick, commercial, and wildly popular in a way that ultimately might not have ended up working in Cobain’s favor.
Nirvana’s career as recording artists lasted a mere half-decade separating 1989’s Bleach from 1994’s Nirvana Unplugged. By then Cobain had evolved past the raucous rebellion of Bleach but Nirvana Unplugged nevertheless begins with a tender acoustic version of “About a Girl.”
It was Cobain's way of acknowledging that what we know and love and miss about Nirvana really began with “About a Girl’ and, to a lesser extent, “Love Buzz” and not the rest of its promising but exceedingly limited debut.
Cobain would become an instant icon and a pop culture martyr. The beginnings of everything that he would become can be found in Bleach, albeit in an angry, embryonic form. But, if you know any loud, cranky kids — either the kind that lives inside you or in your house — this album might seem very familiar.