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“The Best Nirvana Album: Is it Possible That it’s Bleach?”

Something happened in my mind the last time “Drain You” came on on my Dolby Radio shuffle. It was like it was a disease. I could HEAR the heroin coursing through those sound waves, through that studio production.
Just to brief, real quick: popular rhetoric holds that Kurt Cobain started using around 1990 or so, when the band had one album out, 1989’s Bleach, and a handful of EP’s and vinyl singles. Indeed, you can hear it in the music as it turns the corner: the stuff on Nevermind is more victorious and I guess EUPHORIC. Now, to an extent as how Cobain grew up with divorced parents, brutal stepfathers and as we all know sh**ty weather (as well as that bone disease, Tourette’s and molesting that half-retarded girl or whatever), there is so much pain in the vocals all over Bleach, like on that titillating repetition of “Don’t have nothing for you” in the chorus of “Sifting,” that any discerning mind kind of says, ok, some antidote has to step in here and assuage this — whether it’s drugs, or women, or in Cobain’s case both, I guess [1].
“Drain You,” then, a cut from Nevermind, is where love and drugs mix and become one myopic, desperate vision of the world, a vision which in my opinion has sort of dissolved in on itself as the tendency to associate romance and hard rock has as well, since probably the early 2000s, when System of a Down dropped off a little.
Nevermind in a sense is an album centered on romance, in so far as “Come as You Are” and “Lithium” are the album’s centerpieces. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in a way is a stylistic aberration in being built more around, as the band would even joke, the rhythm guitar part to Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” than any riff. Bleach is nothing if not riffy and in this way quintessentially Nirvana and now more than ever I think the gritty mid-album tracks like “Swap Meet” and “Mr. Moustache” play as beer-hoisting party music for the ugly working class, one free of delusions but craving every bit the rock and roll mayhem. Also, contrary to what many might think, soon-to-be-sacked drummer Chad Channing does a fine job all over this album, my favorite of his performances probably coming on the sweeping, lightning-fast snare fills on “Negative Creep.”
Now, there’s always Unplugged and In Utero to consider (and don’t forget those scrappy, gutbucket wails on Incesticide) [2]. There are lots of arguments that In Utero is at least better than Nevermind and one in light of all this discussion could in fact be that Cobain recognized by this point a certain malady in his life, as a way of self-awareness (“My heart is broke / But I have some glue”). In Utero is complex, that’s for sure, and obviously worth a listen. I personally love the guitar solo in “Serve the Servants” — would he could do with that simple little fender in terms of mechanical sound feasting truly boggles the mind. And yeah, I have gone through phases where Unplugged was my favorite Nirvana album. It doesn’t lag too far behind. The “Pennyroyal Tea” version far outpaces the one on In Utero for not being cloaked in unnecessary grunge fuzz, letting the pure DNA of the song emanate forth in glorious acoustics.
Here. Let’s try another test for which Nirvana album precludes the others. How about this: WHICH NIRVANA ALBUM IS MOST LIKE THE BREEDERS? I’m sure Cobain himself would even approve of this application of rubric. Just a second ago I was listening to All Nerve and all of its jaw-dropping intricacy — the perfectly placed rhythm section stabs all the way through, that robust guitar and drum sound and most of all Kim Deal’s tone of voice which seems so genuine and human that a strong gust of wind could blow the whole thing away. It’s possible that now, with Title TK, Mountain Battles and the gripping, undulating and dictational All Nerve under their belts, The Breeders have assembled a superior body of work to Nirvana’s (they could definitely record a sensational unplugged album as well if they wanted, what with “We’re Gonna Rise”; “Here No More”; hmm maybe “New Year” would work well acoustic). But they definitely have a “spirit” about them. And the more I write this the more I realize the futility of trying to parse said spirit within the realm of words. It’s rock music that’s off the beaten path of convention — there’s something geographical and authentic about it [see the references to “mountains” in the one album title as well as accounts of real-life people (“Nervous Mary”) and real-life calamitous situations (“Wait in the Car”)]. It’s patient rock music, yet in this way undeniably real. Still, again, there’s an expedited “spirit” about it, like a spontaneity, and I think the band hit on this with Bleach, with that naive trio of three Northwesterners recording on a budget of $606 (then to as the book states return the best profit margin on an album since the Elvis Sun Sessions)… the project sounds so unmistakably live and all the songs are like kind of the same but kind of different, in a good way. Psychotically, there seems to be no beginning, middle or end to it — things are anything but resolved on “Negative Creep,” the penultimate “Big Cheese” comes off as energetic, youthful and spritely as ever and in this way Bleach stalks ear drums as a live, preternatural animal, answering to no one and taking no prisoners.
Now, this is not to take away from the sadistic gimmick appendage of “Territorial Pi**ings” and the twisted Youngbloods rendition which opens that song — the band fully blew my mind here with what they did on a mainstream level.
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[1] According to Nirvana: the Biography (True) Cobain was dating a girl named Tracy during the Bleach sessions but “About a Girl” does contain the line “I can’t see you every night”, so the frustration is apparent there in a sense. “Lithium” is far more ascending.
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[2] Although that album need not enter for premiere cover art, mind you.
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[3] At one point in True’s book he denotes an instance where Cobain “begs for an introduction to singer Kim Deal.”

 

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