It’s important to be frank when it comes to reviewing music. Either thoughts on new releases or retrospective music reviews have to be an honest account of an individuals’ perception of what they have listened to.
This is my first album review for Cassette_55 and I want to set a precedent.
I wanted to highlight both of those incredibly boring points because, despite buying Bleach by Nirvana on cassette recently, I have never enjoyed listening to Nirvana. Weird choice of album for an initial review then? Well, I decided to go with this debut album, because, out of all the tapes I’ve listened to in the last month (and there are many), ‘Bleach’ stands out for me as the one that has changed my perception of a band, genre and era in music the most.
I was born in 1984 and narrowly missed out on living through the Seattle Sound/Grunge era of the decade that followed. As Nirvana were the jewel in the crown when it came to this fusion of alt rock, punk, and heavy metal I just couldn’t get on with the underground movement that swept the US, Australia, UK and further afield.
I remember searching for a pen-pal on channel 4’s teletext service in the early 90’s. It was a simple concept of reading an individuals likes and dislikes before applying to write to them via a PO Box address (what a life we all led pre internet). My Dad wanted to vet all of the possible pen-pals before I put ink on paper and stopped me from writing to someone because they listed listening to Nirvana as an interest. “Ooooh Ben, they are a bit heavy son. How about the lad that likes Ghostbusters?” And that was the way of it with Nirvana – If you didn’t get them, you didn’t get them.
Fast forward ten years, a Millennium Eve gone by, school and sixth form finished, I wound up at a University in Bath (not THE Bath Uni I hasten to add). The campus had/has an incredible music facility and I began to extend my musical interest beyond my first love of Oasis and other Brit Pop Bands. Groups like Greenday, Beck, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Foo Fighters now made up my most frequently listened to. Yet I still avoided Nirvana every time they came on, or a friend decided to play them. I had grown a reluctance to join the bandwagon and posthumously laud a band that so many others continued to adore.
15 years forward again and now in my mid-thirties I must have looked a very strange sight, riffling through a box of cassettes in a vintage record store full of beautiful vinyl records. Initially I overlooked Bleach. I wasn’t actually sure what it was as the front of the artwork, photography by Cobain’s girlfriend of the time, doesn’t include the band’s name or the name of the album. It wasn’t until the second or third time looking at the tape that I realised what it was. I remember a friend from my first office job would rave about it. She (Juliet) would say “Fuck Ben – I listened to Bleach by Nirvana again last night whilst I was at the Gym. It is so uncooked, it just makes me want to try harder”. I would smile, or roll my eyes depending if she was looking at me or not. I asked Roy at Clocktower Music how much it’d cost alongside all of the other cassettes I had earmarked – “4 quid.” I dropped it in the box.
I’m now into my seventh paragraph of this review and I haven’t said a word about my listening experience. I thought it really important to give you the context here because last week was the first time I had listened to the album all the way through. The debut album of one of the biggest bands of the last 30 years. Bleach is in fact 29 years old now which is 2 years older than Kurt Cobain was when he took his own life in 1994. This is not just the first time I’ve listened to this album, but the first time I’ve ever taken the time to listen to Nirvana as a grown up. The first time I’ve acknowledged Cobain as a younger man than I am now. I have never considered that concept before, and yet it struck me immediately during the opening track. Here is a young man, fronting a raw and talented Grunge Band that have emerged from all of the other Garage Rock Bands in the United States – and that takes some fucking doing! I listened on for a moment and actually winced at the untamed production and occasionally clumsy guitar riffs, thinking to myself: Imagine how exciting it would be if Nirvana were an emerging band right now! In that instant, the hairs on my arms stood on end. I realised that I have starved myself of this band because of a lack of empathy for people who were genuinely full of praise for an awesome band cut down in their prime.
This ‘wasted talent’ concept has always been a frustration of mine. The friend that was sensational at football when we were growing up but dropped out of the academy because he missed home. My Sister literally walking to victory in every long-distance race she ever took part in but never pursuing the discipline as it didn’t interest her. Amy Winehouse’s plummet into addiction despite her mesmerising voice. And Kurt Cobain; The man whose alternative rock band had everything in front of them and blew his brains out. Of course, I didn’t have the life experience or increased knowledge of mental health concerns or the consequences of addiction to ever put this into context when thinking about Nirvana before.
It is actually the self realisation of being an utterly ignorant dick during my first ever listen through of Bleach by Nirvana that is the reason I decided to review it first for my new project. After all, did you really want another self-titled critic to confirm that this album isn’t fit to lace the boots of Nevermind? It had no hits, it needed to be re-released following the success of the second album in 1992 and it was followed by a 4 track EP ‘Blew’ within six months of release to keep momentum going. I’m not going to follow suit though. Because (to quote Star Wars) this was the spark that lit the fire! There is something about this album being so ‘uncooked’ as my friend put it, or ‘exposed’ as I wrote in my notebook about 30 times during the several listens that followed. Something that, had this been released in May 2018, would have me clambering all over this incredible band that I managed to avoid for nearly three decades. I would be as excited now as I imagine so many were back in 1989, and that is what rock music is all about!
The highlight for me is ‘About a Girl’ with an opening not dissimilar to ‘Come As You Are’ and possessing as much raw vulnerability in this studio recording as it did when Nirvana decided to use it as the opening track for MTV Unplugged in New York (1994). I think I enjoyed this track the most because it is Kurt Cobain with his guard down. An almost pop song written following an afternoon listening to The Beatles and not conforming to the grunge expectations that held Cobain ransom during his short, blistering career.
What I’d say to anybody who asked me for an opinion of this album is; find it on vinyl or cassette and listen to it from start to finish in one sitting. See if you end up comparing it to its more successful siblings, or just stopping whatever else it is you’re doing and appreciating that this was the beginning. The beginning of an incredibly important band’s legacy.