Six months after the release of ‘Bleach’, Nirvana put out the ‘Blew’ EP: a four-track collection featuring two songs from their debut album and the unreleased tracks ‘Stain’ and ‘Been A Son’. On the latter, Kurt Cobain took a waspish swipe at his father’s apathy towards Kurt’s sister Kim because, the singer claimed, his pops was perpetually disappointed he’d been lumbered with a baby girl rather than a second son.
‘Bleach’, released over 27 years ago on June 15, 1989, isn’t Nirvana’s unwanted child, but it still has to fight damn hard for elbow room in Nirvana’s legacy. Between the world-changing ‘Nevermind’, the harrowingly raw ‘In Utero’ and the swansong vulnerability of ‘MTV Unplugged’, there’s scant room in the legend for a debut LP that was still too indebted to Seattle’s murky grunge sound to be deemed a bona-fide classic. It didn’t change pop culture forever, but instead only sold 40,000 copies in the US until the release of ‘Nevermind’. Rather than exploring a rock star’s struggles with fame, pressure, self-loathing and drug addiction, it was the voice of a grouchy slacker.
Yet ‘Bleach’ is far too important to be cast aside as the runt of the litter – because here, for all the flaws and foibles, were the first flickering signs that Nirvana would become something special. ‘School’ looms into life on a wave of murky feedback and then erupts in a rudimentary-yet-blistering riff: sonically and lyrically it’s as simple as they come, but there’s something about that scabrous bellyaching that perfectly sums up a desire to kick against the pricks and their bitchy, adolescent cliques.
Likewise, the helter-skelter racket of ‘Mr Moustache’ takes aim at dim-witted alpha males and their macho posturing as Kurt yelps witheringly: “Yes I eat cow/I am not proud.” Later, he’d claim that he wrote all of the album’s lyrics in one evening and they didn’t carry any great weight of meaning, but he was already capable of vocalising how it felt to be discontent and disenchanted. ‘Bleach’ married scratchy, irascible noise to the most adolescent of concerns – school, bullies and, on ‘Scoff’ as on ‘Been A Son’, parental strife – and made them feel like the most important issues in the world. As Nirvana grew in stature, so Cobain’s bugbears became more complex, too, but he’d never lose the knack for lending a voice to everyone who was similarly pissed-off, for understanding his audience in a way that Axl Rose, Eddie Vedder et al never could.
And if ‘In Utero’ is often hailed as the purist’s Nirvana album with its bleak, unvarnished sound, it’s worth remembering that it was purposefully abrasive, a discontented troublemaker thumbing its nose at everyone who now wanted a piece of it. ‘Bleach’ is violently raw because it couldn’t be anything else: recorded for just $600 and in 30 hours, there’s no play-acting in the rough, guttural ‘Negative Creep’ or the narky thrash of ‘Blew’. Even the lead single ‘Love Buzz’, a cover of the Dutch band Shocking Blue, is a weird and warped little thing, a far more ambitious, tongue-in-cheek and playful record than anything Mudhoney or Soundgarden were mustering at the time. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine any of their contemporaries being capable of something like ‘About A Girl’. Kurt’s first true masterpiece, the fuzzy and deceptively sweet melodies and none-more-simple structure undercut by the lyrical tangle of dependence, debt, conflict and lust – an unconventional treatment of a love song that’d crop up in ‘Heart Shaped-Box’, too – and showed Nirvana’s soft underbelly could be just as arresting as their ear-splitting thrashes.
There’s faults to be found in ‘Bleach’, of course: the throwaway dins of ‘Big Cheese’ and ‘Swap Meet’ which amount to little more than grunge filler, and without Dave Grohl behind the drumkit, there’s a lack of the pummelling precision that would help make ‘Nevermind’ into such a monster. But for all its rough edges and teething problems, there were still the first tell-tale signs that Nirvana could become something more significant than just another rock band: not a great album, but one which, in hindsight, makes it seem inevitable that future greatness beckoned.