Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Debut of Nirvana

Twenty–five years ago today, Nirvana's debut album, "Bleach," hit the music stores.

Nirvana was part of the early grunge scene in Seattle — in fact, it can be said (and has) that Nirvana gave birth to grunge — and the band's second album, "Nevermind," was a major influence on the grunge style when it was released in 1991.

Considering what was to come, it may be surprising to realize that "Bleach" didn't even register on the charts — although it was pretty well received by critics. The absence of recognition was understandable. Nirvana was a new band to most people. There was no fanfare when "Bleach" was released; heck, the album was recorded on a shoestring budget — for about 600 bucks.

In fact, "Bleach" didn't even make much of a ripple with the public until "Nevermind" was a hit — although "Bleach" did sell 1.6 million copies. When "Nevermind" was a hit, then people really began to listen to "Bleach."

Probably the most well–received song on the album was "About a Girl," which band founder Kurt Cobain wrote about the girl he was dating at the time. It had a catchy sound that was good for radio and more mainstream listeners, but I don't remember hearing it on the radio much until after "Nevermind" was released — and "Bleach" was re–released to capitalize on the band's popularity.

In general, Cobain had a disdain for the lyrics of most of the songs on the album. He claimed to have been under pressure from the record label to produce grunge songs that were like the ones in the band's existing catalog, and he said he wrote most of the song lyrics on "Bleach" the night before recording them.

Critics spoke of the influences on Nirvana's music — Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, the Smithereens — in their articles about the album, and that influence isn't hard to find. Indeed, at times it practically leaps out of the CD, grabs the listener by the collar and slaps him a couple of times.

But mostly what jumped out was Nirvana's emerging sound — uniquely its own, even with the influences of those who came before.

"School," for instance, had a very late '60s, early '70s quality — an almost Black Sabbath sound — to it.

"Love Buzz," too, had the sound of that era.

It had all the trademarks of a psychedelic song, but then, at the end, things went in — shall we say? — a different direction.

Actually, I thought it had kind of an ominous, perilous sound to it. The fact that it was the only song on the album that was not written by Cobain may or may not have had anything to do with that.

"Negative Creep" was probably the most blatantly grunge song on the album — a song Cobain admittedly wrote about himself. In hindsight, it was courageous of him to write a song about himself that was so honest.

Still, for all its rebellious attitude, grunge music hasn't been immune to hype. I've heard some people call "About a Girl" and "Negative Creep" grunge classics.

The word classic is, it seems to me, overused. There should be a generally agreed upon standard for how old something should be before it is regarded a classic. Perhaps having the word grunge as a modifier makes it acceptable — although I still wonder how any art style can have a classic form if the style itself is only 25 years old.

(In one of my classes, I heard two students discussing rap classics. Aren't those two words mutually exclusive?)

Throughout "Bleach," one could hear the roots of grunge in Nirvana's music. As songwriters, the members of the group, especially Cobain, were trying to find themselves — which ultimately led Nirvana to its own particular style.

They were nearly there when "Bleach" hit the shelves.

There was plenty of original material on "Bleach," but mostly what it did was whet the listener's appetite for what was to come.