It’s hard to believe it was twenty years ago that this unassuming jumble of punk, hardcore and metal was unleashed upon a rather indifferent world. There were some devotees of course – a burgeoning scene in Seattle and a smattering of followers throughout Europe, especially the UK – but despite the valiant efforts of Everett True, this album wouldn’t do much to win them any new fans. Regardless, the album remains legendary. It’s the $600 album that went platinum and saved Sub Pop from going under, though this happened years after its initial release. A lot of albums are defined and shaped almost solely through hindsight – any number of post-punk bands, no-wave, you name it; Bleach is no exception. But despite any hyperbole casually thrown about, this album should not be swept under the rug; it’s vital, it’s dirty, and it captures a band at the peak of its long and hard trudge to notoriety, before any trace of complacency emerged. It’s almost unimaginable to think of what this music must have sounded like in 1989; it sounds removed from its time period, but perhaps for the best. It sounds not like something recorded in the late 80s but rather like a snotty UK punk band in the late 70s predicting numerous musical trends all at the same time.
Bleach is an uncompromising listen, especially for a band with the stature of Nirvana. Uncomfortable and downright terrifying at points, it has all the anger and rebellion of punk but all the seething misanthropy and violence of metal. Alternately expert pastiche and genre fusion, it careens from the scuzzy hardcore of “Negative Creep’ (think Motorhead & early Husker Du) to the early doom metal of “Sifting” to the outright pop of “About A Girl.” Of course, this doesn’t make for the most coherent album, and certainly a consistently interesting listen, Bleach doesn’t sound like a thoroughly-conceived “album.” But considering the band and the music, maybe that’s the way it should have been.
Part of the problem is that the album is sourced from two distinct sessions at two very different times in the band’s history; the first was in early 1988, with Dale Crover of The Melvins on drums. His presence is instantly identifiable, his pounding and deliberate drums lending the band an inestimable power that even Dave Grohl would have trouble matching later in the band’s history. The other half of the album is from a session much later in the year, featuring the band’s first “real” drummer, Chad Channing. While by no means “bad,” Channing lacks the power of Dale Crover, nor does he have any interesting stylistic flair. Sequenced next to Crover’s tracks, his drumming sounds wimpy and muddy.
You probably know most of these songs, and if you don’t, you’re in for a treat. The album crawls to a start with the awkward, tentative bassline of “Blew,” an endearingly amateurish song that sounds stitched together from various incongruent parts – and it’s one of the band’s best. “Floyd The Barber” is a primitive tale of a haircut gone terribly wrong, with surf guitar breaks. There are riff-driven tracks that would be suffocating if it weren’t for their occasional snatches of brilliant melody (“Mr. Moustache”, “Sifting”, “Scoff”), and there are repetitive, droning mantras (“School”, “Negative Creep”, “Swap Meet”). But there are three tracks in particular that are absolutely essential: outright pop songs “About A Girl” and “Love Buzz,” (the latter a cover of an obscure Danish band) predict the band’s future direction, with the former owing a rather obvious debt to The Beatles and the latter being a nearly inexplicable fusion of funk, pop, and thrash. Then there’s “Paper Cuts,” a diseased monster of a track with thunderous drums (Crover, natch), an odd structure with almost no melody, and the most inhuman screams Cobain ever put to tape, along with typically fascinating lyrics about a boy being locked in a windowless room by his parents.
This reissue is little more than a capitalization on infamy, the label taking a break from releasing polite indie rock to revisit its nearly-forgotten roots. There’s no real reason to re-release this album – Bleach has near-ubiquity in record stores, and the cheap sound isn’t much improved by this remaster – but now that it’s actually here, it might as well be enjoyed. And it is enjoyable. Bleach is still a fantastic album in 2009, and appended here is a wonderful 33-minute live set from 1989, the band roaring through its concert staples at the time. Including tracks from Bleach and future classics like “Dive,” the sound quality is impeccable, arguably of a higher grade than the album itself. It makes for a fun listen, but is it really worth paying for an upgrade for 30 minutes of live music? Surely something else could have been added, even if more live tracks. It feels a bit like a cheap move, or at least a sloppy rush-job; but if it introduces prospective new fans to this near-masterpiece, it’s difficult to criticize.