Monday, July 11, 2016
Nirvana -- Bleach
According to the date ranges on this sociological study (and Wikipedia, too), I am a member of Generation X, though I already knew that because
A. I have identified with this sub-group and its prevailing attitudes my entire life.
B. I have experienced most of the cultural touchstones of that subgroup.
C. I felt incredibly powerful "get-off-my lawn" sentiments toward all of the millennials who suddenly burst on the scene from some cave somewhere fully grown circa 2004, with their Underoath and The Killers t-shirts, and their overuse of the terms "amazing" and "scene."
Most apt for this review, though, I can remember a time in music before Nirvana existed, and also that that time, even right before Nirvana' emergence in 1989, was not bad.
The 80's produced plenty of awesome albums, with two of my favorite rock bands, Echo and the Bunnymen and U2 (unarguably a rock band in the 80's) putting out nearly ten great ones collectively between only the two of them.
Music wasn't dead, and rock-and-roll certainly wasn't dead, but Nirvana certainly did come along and offer something different.
I'll try to explain that over the next four reviews, but to distill it early on, I think it's more of an attitude than anything. You can bring this right back to generational conflict, between the previous generation, The Baby Boomers (born between WWII and the early sixties, Generation X (my generation), and those dang millennials (born between the mid 80's and the first George W Bush Administration).
Nirvana is often described as sounding the death knell for hair metal. Hair Metal is a very image-focused genre, with band members often wearing tights and ridiculously coiffed, oversize hairstyles. The music often seemed to focus on technical displays, such as guitar solos, and very shallow subject matter, generally getting laid, trying to get laid, and being awesome. From many band members retrospective autobiographies, it appears that, with the aid of their music, getting laid was never much of a problem (though the whole "being awesome" thing is arguable).
Hair Metal is the logical endpoint for the Baby Boomers. Boomers as a whole, are known for being the very self-focused generation that attempted to "find themselves," at perilous cost, as the next generation, X, are often referred to as "latchkey kids," or kids who had to raise themselves while their parents were out doing that. What's more self-focused than dolling yourself up, getting on a stage in front of everyone, and trying to show everyone how awesome you are?
So you have the Boomers, who mainly care about themselves, and skipping ahead, you have the Millennials, who if you haven't yet heard through the social media outlets they have utilized throughout their existence, care about absolutely EVERYTHING. In the middle of that, you have the X'ers, who as reputation would have it, don't care about anything. That's not necessarily true, and yet it is true in a way that is difficult to put into words. Apathy is a word that gets tossed at Generation X a lot, but the truth of it is, X just doesn't care about the attention. X has less faith in the power of institutions, and the power of humanity in general, which can lead to cynicism at worst. and a profound sense of realism at best.
Millennials think they can save the world with a tweet. Baby Boomers don't care as much about the rest of the world, as much as they care about saving themselves if they can just get a little more.
We (X) don't see much sense in either point of view. History shows that something as mundane as a tweet is not going to stop India from nuking Pakistan. Putting just a little bit more money in your 401K isn't going to stop the world from ending, either. If this sounds cynical, so be it. It's also true.
This point of view doesn't lend itself to taking the stage after spending half the day bathing in hairspray and stuffing yourself into a neon spandex bodysuit to sing songs to screaming ladies who will fight each other to get backstage with you after the show.. It lends itself to wearing baggy clothes that don't draw any attention, while your hair falls nondescript over your face, as you try, somehow, to articulate the complex feelings detailed above. That's what Nirvana did.
That's also why "grunge" is a difficult qualifier.
Bleach, Nirvana's first album, sounds "grungy" because Nirvana's record label expected their bands to sound that way (Cobain later claimed he was repressing his more, uh...distinctive natures while recording this album). Grunge, though, doesn't really mean anything. It's kind of dark rock music, full of angst, and barely-if-at-all concealed anger. Speaking of barely-if-at-all concealed anger:
Not wanting to be in the spotlight is one of the key characteristics of Gen X, directly contrasting with the "Hey, look what I did" of Baby Boomers' popular art, and the Millennials rather unfortunate social media feeds. It's also, unfortunately, why we are on the whole not as successful as our predecessors, or successors. I can't even articulate how frustrating it's been to live my life thinking "Nah, that won't work. Might as well not even try," only to see the kids immediately following me enthusiastically, and confidently saying, "This will work, and I will do it!" and succeeding! Had Kurt Cobain been born twenty years later, I don't think he would have ever committed suicide. He'd be on his tenth album, and have a damn organic, gluten-free vegetarian restaurant on the side (which, naturally, would have somehow cured his debilitating stomach pains). Ugh. I can't stand you guys, and it's only because I am jealous of your success and confidence. Why do you always think everything is going to be okay? Why do you think that you can do anything that you can set your mind to? Don't you know that you can't trust the man, and that dreams don't really come true? YOU THINK YOU CAN DO THESE THINGS, NEMO, BUT YOU CAN'T!!!
Okay, now that I've purged that from my system (I'm lying, I haven't), back to Nirvana's 1989 debut, Bleach.
Bleach doesn't sound much like Nirvana's other albums, but neither do Nirvana's other albums. Bleach certainly contains a more primordial sound, sometimes even akin to metal.
I'm not even about to comment on Seattle's late 80's grunge scene, being from rural South Louisiana. My only exposure to bands from that time period with that descriptor are Nirvana (and from the early 90's, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, etc.) because that was the only music of that sort available to me. I also won't act like I am cooler than the majority of Nirvana fans who were first introduced to Nirvana through their second album, Nevermind, because I was introduced to Nirvana through Nevermind. I don't have any late 80's "grunge" to compare this to. I only have the rest of Nirvana's discography, and compared to that, Bleach is fuzzier, rawer. "thuddier," and a lot less memorable, with less reliance on hooks, and less sophisticated drumming. It also has a metal influence their other albums don't have. Track six, "Paper Cuts," might as well be a Metallica song from the same year.
There's a certain heaviness here that Nirvana never dropped, but that is certainly more pronounced on Bleach--hard rock vocals Cobain himself refers to as "screaming," and a generally sluggish tempo, which goes along with the totally-a-word-I-don't-care-what-you-say-spellcheck descriptor "thuddier.". And it's fun. Don't forget about that part. Fun, but not particularly memorable.
One song does rise above the fray, and that is "About a Girl," which hints at Nirvana's later development, with a bit more depth in the guitar tone, and a definite hook (and a guitar solo, which some people forget Nirvana had, even on this album). It's no wonder this song made the cut on the MTV Unplugged album the band released five years later. It has staying power.
And so does Nirvana.
To be continued (bailiwick and all)...
1989 Sub Pop
1. Blew 2:55
2. Floyd the Barber 2:18
3. About a Girl 2:48
4. School 2:42
5. Love Buzz 3:35
6. Paper Cuts 4:06
7. Negative Creep 2:56
8. Scoff 4:10
9. Swap Meet 3:03
10. Mr. Moustache 3:24
11. Sifting 5:22