The prevailing line about Bleach, Nirvana’s Sub Pop debut, is that it got A&R reps tumescent from coast to coast, the music equivalent of a free-agent wide receiver catching 95 balls for 13 touchdowns in a contract year. But Bleach isn’t as clear a winner as the alleged label battle that ensued after its release would lead you to believe. Anyone that claims that when they heard Bleach they knew it was by the defining band of the ‘90s is full of shit. Bleach is a raucous, aggressive record that attempts to weld punk influences to classic rock and pop, and it succeeds only in bursts.
Bleach is not the kind of album that you throw on and think of it as generation-defining (that’s Nevermind) or the kind of purposefully anti-commercial record that is commercialized because of that supposed anti-commercialism (like In Utero). Instead, it’s the kind of record that can be made only by a band finally getting into a studio after more than a while spent in the garage. Bleach bears a kitchen-sink approach that was never possible after the band became the huge stars they became a year and a half later. It’s not as classic as the two Nirvana full-lengths that followed, but it’s still leagues better than most things that fell underneath grunge’s flannel umbrella.
Bleach is one of only two Sub Pop albums to be certified platinum (the other is the first Flight of the Conchords album, coincidentally enough), so it makes monetary sense that the label would get around to releasing it again. There’s not much than can be said about tracks like “Love Buzz” or “About a Girl” or the almost jovial back-half that hasn’t been in print for two decades already (it’s not like this is the reissue from an obscure band), but the main pull of this 20th anniversary edition of Bleach is the inclusion of an entire live concert that was recorded on Feb. 9, 1990, in Portland. The concert catches Nirvana right before they became “Nirvana,” and before they began working on Nevermind. The set is dominated by Bleach, remarkably capturing all the unchained attack of the album, which isn’t necessarily surprising, since producer Jack Endino produced the live set, too.
Listening to Bleach now, the main thing that comes across is how little it sounds moored to a specific time. Whereas Nevermind and albums from Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden will always scream ‘90s grunge-rock explosion, Bleach sounds like it could have come out in 1976 or 2009, just as much as it sounds like 1989. A lot of that has to do with how hard it is to imitate Nirvana to become famous. While other grunge bands have had to deal with Nickelback, Creed and nearly every horrible band on the modern rock charts claiming them as primary influences, there hasn’t been a band yet that can convincingly use Nirvana’s musical road map to create new music. And that, as much as Cobain’s posthumous rock ‘n’ roll messiah designation, will keep Bleach in print for a 30th-anniversary edition and beyond.