I wasn’t introduced to Nirvana through radio or MTV. Not directly, anyway.
I was already listening to Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish, when I read an article about Nirvana in a magazine. The article mentioned Butch Vig produced Nevermind, and I was willing to give it shot based on that recommendation.
When it comes to the product diffusion curve, I’m usually somewhere at the tail of an early adopter, so it was mere months between my purchase of Nevermind and the ascent of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into pop culture consciousness.
Once Kurt Cobain became deified, my interest had already moved on to Kronos Quartet, John Zorn and Clannad. I didn’t buy Insecticide or In Utero or MTV Unplugged, and while I was sad Cobain took his own life, I sought not to blow his death out of proportion.
After listening to the self-titled collection back in 2002, I was drawn to the tracks from the band’s early era, and after hearing Nevermind in context of Nirvana’s entire career, I was surprised by how blatantly commercial that album really was.
So I found a used copy of Bleach and took it for a spin.
Despite a $600 budget and some weak mastering, this album has some blistering performances. (Bleach was remastered in the UK in 2002, but I don’t remember hearing whether than edition was released in the US.)
Bleach possessed all the songwriting finesse of Nevermind and all the grit of In Utero. Yes, you could say the subsequent albums diluted the aspects which made Nirvana whole.
“About a Girl” is a tender song without having to resort to balladry or introspection, but Cobain’s disintegrating wail on “Negative Creep” is nothing short of riveting.
The eastern touches of “Love Buzz” show a trace hint of lineage from Led Zeppelin, while the dischordant pulse of “Paper Cuts” can still be heard in the pummelling riffs of Number Girl.
“Swap Meet”, meanwhile, has the familiar melodic contour trademark of Nirvana, and “Big Cheese” features the haunting harmonizing that made Cobain’s singing special.
Bleach is an amazing debut, louder, harder, tougher than the work that would eventually bring Nirvana fame. If I had encountered Bleach before Nevermind, I probably would have tossed something about “selling out”.
This album is exactly what the band could do while nobody was looking.