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Main Category: Punk/Grunge
Also applicable: Mope Rock
Starting Period: From Grunge To The Present Day
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Year Of Release: 1989
Overall rating =

Dirty, sloppy, unpolished, great songwriting - which almost makes it scarier than everything that followed.


Track listing: 1) Blew; 2) Floyd The Barber; 3) About A Girl; 4) School; 5) Love Buzz; 6) Paper Cuts; 7) Negative Creep; 8) Scoff; 9) Swap Meet; 10) Mr Moustache; 11) Sifting; 12) Big Cheese; 13) Downer.

You know, I think I just came up (independently, mind you! Yep, I do have a brain of my own, just like Robert Christgau!) with an answer to that question of questions: namely, why Nirvana made it to the mainstream where zillions of other alternative bands couldn't. Because from the very very beginning, they were aiming towards the teenage mentality. The average teenager doesn't spend much time taking the reality that surrounds him and converting it into a highly individual, existentialist form before putting it into words. If something is good, the average teenager says: "This rules". If something is bad, the average teenager says: "This sucks". And if everything is bad, the average teenager says: "Fuck this shit". And that's what Bleach does.

So what is Bleach? Bleach is early Beatles [melody] meet Black Sabbath [arrangement] and shake hands with the Sex Pistols [mood]. In other words, a collection of understandable, unpretentious, unsophisticated pop songs with repetitive choruses relentlessly hammered into your head by the wild wild drive. And, of course, all the songs are written from the point of view of a desperate, aggressive, disillusioned, dissatisfied, and occasionally suicidal teenage guy. Which is exactly what Kurt Cobain was. A "Negative Creep". No more, no less. Not a melancholic fantasy land guy like Michael Stipe, not a post-modernistic weirdo like Frank Black, and definitely not a complex, multi-faceted artist like Nick Cave. Which explains it all. Maybe out of all those alternative guys, only the Replacements could have fared as well comercially as Kurt and the gang did; why they didn't, I honestly don't know.

Actually, let me make a slight, but important correction: the album's message is not so much "fuck this shit" (had it been so, we'd probably see Nirvana move into politics or universalist social commentary at one point, which ain't the case), as it is "fuck this shitty ME". It's no coincidence that the word "shame" occupies a crucial position in the lyrics for the first two songs - there's a tremendous feeling of guilt and self-loathing throughout. On many of the songs it almost seems like Cobain is prepared to smash his guitar... on his own skull rather than anything else. And that's exactly why Bleach is so much scarier than most of its competition: few people since John Lennon managed to be so good at hating themselves on record, although Kurt's chief competitor at the time, Layne Staley, might have done an even better job. Which, I guess, places Bleach at the bottom end of the list of albums I'd recommend to people with unusually low self-esteem - and at the top end of the list of albums I'd recommend to people who are used to thinking too much of themselves.

Anyway, on Bleach, recorded for six hundred bucks (and actually sounding like it could have been recorded for a couple stale hamburgers and a joint or two), Nirvana sets out to prove that "alternative" music can be catchy, accessible, socially relevant, and "fun" in a very pissed-off way. Actually, they don't set out to prove anything; Nirvana are pretty much the Ramones of the late Eighties'/early Nineties' alternate scene. If anything proves anything, it's their actual music when you listen to it. It's not a great album - the songs are often less actual songs than they're spontaneous declarations of hate and depression - but it's definitely a good one.

So the aim is - get a groove, settle onto it, play as loud and distorted as possible, and try to scream as much as possible while at the same time trying to stay on key. They don't always succeed, and the general monotonousness of the proceedings coupled with a slight drop in quality towards the end (don't know about you, but I could never get excited about stuff like 'Big Cheese' after already having sat through the far superior 'Floyd The Barber'); in other words, it's certainly less consistent than Nevermind. However, given that it's apriori amazing that such a limited formula could actually produce such solid results at the tail end of the Nineties, Bleach is downright fascinating. For a perfect demonstration of that principle, take 'Negative Creep': a fast riff that's too sloppy to be true metal but way too "heavy on the brain" to be true punk (I just summarized 'grunge', didn't I?), and a hysterical Cobain roaring about how 'I'm A NEGATIVE CREEP AND I'M STO-O-O-O-O-ONED!'. How could this message not find thousands of 'negative creeps' to identify themselves with it? It eventually did. And, by the way, how come it's 'Polly' that always attracts the attention of "musical moralists" when 'Negative Creep' is a far clearer pronounced 'rape song'? 'Daddy's little girl ain't a girl no more' - just how many times does he repeat that chorus? Oh, I forgot, it's all about the number of copies sold.

'Negative Creep', however, isn't the most "complex" song on the album - contrary to belief, not everything on Bleach is just jarring feedback-choked three chords. Along the way, Cobain already tries his hand at writing slower, moodier, trickier pieces, like the exhausting 'Paper Cuts', for instance; I personally think Nirvana's slow lengthy stuff works worse than their faster stuff (not that they often played really fast, but speed does play a part in rating a band like this nevertheless), and while the song can certainly impress you while it's on, with its alternation of Sabbath-esque I-come-directly-from-hell riffage and chiming 'lighter' guitars, you'll probably be just left with a curious sagging feeling when it's over. Much better is the tempo-changing 'Sifting', with its excellent 'don't have nothing for you!' chorus - sure it gets a bit too repetitive when the same line is repeated twenty times, but in the general context of Cobain's aggressive paranoia, it works fine. You just have to ready yourself for this bit of "lobotomized mantraism" that characterizes so many Nirvana songs.

However, even on the simplest songs they are still well able to understand what makes a great three/four chord riff and what doesn't: for instance, check out the album opener, 'Blew', with its Motorhead-like bass intro and the endlessly repeating riff that I definitely would not recommend to anybody with suicidal tendencies. Or the quasi-martial patterns of 'Floyd The Barber'. Or the interesting choice of the album's only cover song, 'Love Buzz', whose authorship escapes me at the moment and whose natural belonging on this record may be actually put under question (most probably, just one of those ironic and/or confusion-ist moves that smart guys use to mislead the listener), but whose melody is still unbeatable and, despite being as heavy and scream-o-liferous as everything else, still brings a refreshening note of diversity to the proceedings. That riff is almost Eastern-sounding, it is!

Speaking of Beatles references, it's hardly possible not to notice the Beatles' influence on songs like the surprisingly (although relatively) gentle 'About A Girl', with a typically Beatlesque verse-to-chorus melodic shift and even vocal harmonies that sound like a weak parody on Beatlesque ones. Amazingly, the song is actually very good, showing that Nirvana, indeed, had melodic talent in spades; the only thing it lacks is a more convincing/memorable chorus.

Of course, the band's influences are all over the place. Listen to 'School' and understand just how many times these guys relistened to their early Black Sabbath records to instinctively make their melodies alternate with each other just like on those records. Or speed these songs up and see if you can tell many of 'em from prime Motorhead. And though I've never heard the band's "teachers", the Melvins, I'm pretty sure there's a lot they learned from them as well. However, all this doesn't matter in the light of the fact that Bleach did instigate a musical paradigm somewhat different from the rest. Plus, more than half of the songs are good. So what else do you want from me? Tell you that Nirvana rules? Tell you that Nirvana sucks? Tell you to fuck this shit? Would it satisfy ya? Would it slide on by ya? Would ya think the boy's insane? Hey, it's only rock'n'roll, but I like it!



Year Of Release: 1991

When it comes to reviewing this album, you'll usually find two takes on it. The Predictable Take will tell you that Kurt Cobain saved your life and my life with this album - that it's the greatest rock album of the Nineties or even the greatest rock album ever, that never and nowhere else has teen angst, alienation, pessimism and all the Generation X shenanigan been captured so perfectly, that the revolutionary qualities of this stuff could be discussed for ages, etc. Then, The Snubby Take will take over and politely or sneeringly inform you that sure enough some of the tunes are catchy, but overall this is just generic predictable crap from a guy who can barely play three chords, whose songs all sound the same, who's a pathetic one-trick-pony boring whiner, and how the world has been duped with this crap for more than a decade now, spurring people on to forming listless look-alike grunge clones that killed popular music instead of revitalizing it.

Well, music is a subjective art form, and as such, both of these approaches are true. Nevermind has often been called the The Clash/Never Mind The Bollocks of its generation - true in that it gave pop music a shot in the arm when it really needed it the most, untrue in that its positive influence has been retroactive rather than anything else. Arguably, if not for Nevermind and everything it helped extract from the old ruined temple of the Eighties' underground, we the people would never have learned of all the really good music there was in the decade. Nowadays, when VH1 shoots an Eighties retrospective, you can expect it to be chock full of hair metal bands and synth-pop, but you can also expect them to devote at least a few minutes to Husker Du and the Replacements - thank Kurt Cobain (along with REM) for that, because it was in 1991 when Nevermind and REM's Out Of Time opened many a guy's eyes on that... But if we speak of influence - there's no doubt that Nevermind's influence has been severely negative. By "selling out" the underground, Kurt sold out rebellion and protest: suddenly, all these monster corporations saw that they could actually make money on teen angst in the same way they were earlier making money on all that "porn metal" of the Eighties. And all of a sudden, you could find yourself a talentless dick marketing yourself as a "rebel" and making big bucks.

But the fact is, Cobain was anything but a talentless dick, and this album more than proves it. I remember defiantly ignoring Nirvana and Nevermind at an age when they were the coolest thing since powdered milk, and boy am I glad - by turning my back on them in the early Nineties, even if that was due to ignorance and unwarranted snubbiness more than anything else, I was able to evaluate the album from a fresh perspective, unhampered by all the fuckin' baggage attached to it once and for all. What, you can't stand all the Nevermind singles 'cuz you've heard each one a hundred million times? I'm not getting you bucko, I've heard each of them bar maybe 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' only a few times in my life, and they rule. This is definite and stable - the first side of Nevermind is one of the most powerful "look-at-me-I'm-so-fucked" statements in history, if not the most powerful one. Certainly not the subtlest; teen angst and depression has been explored in millions of ways before, by everybody from Pete Townshend to all the Seventies' punkers.

But it's not subtleness that works for Nevermind (although Kurt proves that he can be subtle when he really wants to - 'Polly', eh?). It's the in-yer-face approach coupled with the fact that Cobain refuses to follow the standard "punk rule": the angrier you wanna get, the faster you play. Speed doesn't help; speed hurts. You can play fast and mean, but this means your message will be blurred and rushed. Nevermind doesn't boast a whole lot of different notes and chords, but every note and chord is in its right place. Even when the band does speed up, like on the breathtaking 'Breed', one of the scariest songs ever made, there's a distinct and memorable hard rock riff underlying it, not just a barrage of "empty" chords: distinct and memorable, and creepy at the same time (Tony Iommi adoration at work here again). And the slow songs? Woohoo, now that's some MOOZIK for you!

Now whatever one might say about Nirvana's lack of originality (which is obvious, if not particularly disturbing), the fact remains that an absolute majority of the songs on here are doggone catchy. For an album filled with formulaic songs all based on primitive riffage and a guy screaming about his personal problems, this is more than an achievement, this nears genius. My absolute favourite is the 'In Bloom' single, the one where Kurt trashes the average Joe, but 'Come As You Are'? 'Breed'? 'Stay Away'? 'On A Plain'? 'Lithium'? Somehow every one of these songs captures a great vocal/musical hook or two, and often, it's just a scream. Isn't Kurt yelling "Yeaaaaaaah" on 'Lithium' a hook? It is. Isn't it even more of a hook how eventually this 'yeaaaaaaah' develops into the 'I'm not gonna crack' chant? It is. I'm not able to express this formally, but if Mr Cobain doesn't tap into something really primal, really scary, really balrog-ish in its disturbed schizophrenic evil, then nobody does and we're all just imagining things.

In short, Nevermind is just that kind of a record where one needs to let go of oneself. Evaluating it in "technical" terms is nonsense: Cobain's playing technique is, as usual, rudimentary, and the song structures are extremely predictable. Dismissing it as "that record where that stupid guy keeps yelling all the time" and attributing its success to nothing more than a Zeitgeist is the easiest thing to do. Heck, it is a Zeitgeist. I mean, the Replacements couldn't make this breakthrough and Nirvana made it - maybe just because by 1991 the people were way too sick of the everpresent hair metal. But this is all I gotta say to that: I gave it an honest chance, a "pure" chance, and it captured me the same way it captured people in 1991, a decade after the original craze. Which, to me at least, means that Nevermind is more than a temporary distraction. In fact, I think it is better than The Clash, so there.


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