Essential Nirvana

Your handy guide to Nirvana's long-players
It’s been twenty years since ‘Bleach’, the debut album from Nirvana was released, setting the band on a path that would stretch from local clubs to the world’s stages, from obscurity to stardom, and culminating in tragedy.

Come with us as we have a look back at the trio's all to brief back catalogue.

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‘Bleach’ (1989)

What can you achieve with a $600 recording budget? In Nirvana’s case they produced ‘Bleach’, their first calling card of heavy riffs and dense rhythms infused with surprisingly sweet pop melodies. And neither does it sound like a $600 album - of course, its fuzzy edges are a world away from ‘Nevermind’, but it kicks with enough clarity to suit the songs.

Although Kurt Cobain’s songwriting is still finding direction, ‘Bleach’’s finest songs are more than strong enough to have graced their later albums. ‘About A Girl’ particularly highlights Cobain’s ability to discover an infectious, bittersweet hook, while ‘Negative Creep’ spat and snarled like ‘In Utero’’s most abrasive moments. ‘Blew’, ‘School’, ‘Mr. Moustache’ and a version of Shocking Blue’s ‘Love Buzz’ all contributed to a debut album that not only demonstrated great potential but actually delivered at the first attempt.

Cobain and Novoselic later found a groove with Dave Grohl that the album’s weaker tracks (‘Paper Cuts’, ‘Swap Meet’) lacked, but ‘Bleach’ remains a rare example of a world conquering talent at the very cusp of greatness.


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‘Nevermind’ (1991)

Picking holes in ‘Nevermind’ is a fool’s game. The slick production is the easiest target, being at odds with the trio’s raw, rambunctious nature, yet had the aesthetics of the underground been employed on these tremendously immediate songs, it’s likely that ‘Nevermind’ would’ve never reached the audience that it did. And maybe there was an irony in ‘Lithium’ being almost as disposable as the glam-metal hoards whose careers were soon ruined by the rise of Seattle. But these criticisms pale compared to its strengths.

Elsewhere, ‘Nevermind’ is without fault. Today it’s hard to imagine a world where ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ isn’t omnipresent, but its initial infiltration of the charts was radical, harking towards a seismic global cultural shift. Indeed, the entire album pulsates with a unique vitality; ‘Breed’ rages like the genius offspring of Husker Dü and The Ramones, ‘Come As You Are’ approximates Killing Joke’s Eighties yet still sounds wilfully original and even the less celebrated tracks demand repeat listens. Vitally, ‘Something In The Way’ provided evidence that Nirvana could eschew nihilism in favour of something altogether more subtle.


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‘Incesticide’ (1992)

No-one will argue that Incesticide is Nirvana’s best album, but this compilation of session tracks and obscurities is certainly the most fun. Much of the first half is unblemished hook-laden punk: Cobain’s lyrics make a rare excursion to the world of childhood innocence with the killer melodies of ‘Sliver’, the harrowing ‘Polly’ returns to its original Buzzcocks attack and ‘Been A Son’ focuses on keeping things short yet oh so catchy. The covers impress too - The Vaselines’ ‘Molly’s Lips’ and ‘Son Of A Gun’ trade the feyness of the originals for a tougher brand of sensitivity, while ‘Turnaround’ reimagines Devo as a conventional power trio. And if the rush of pop melodies is too much, ‘Dive’ and ‘Stain’ successfully bury their hooks under the same distorted power that typifies Nirvana’s best moments ‘Aneurysm’ and ‘Aero Zeppelin’ apart, the album’s second half yields fewer rewards. ‘Hairspray Queen’’s yelping vocals and elastic bass defines incohesion, while ‘Big Long Now’’s epic dirge demands the discipline of brevity. Still, these leftovers could be someone else’s definitive collection.


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‘In Utero’ (1993)

“Teenage angst has paid off well,” commences ‘In Utero’’s opening track ‘Serve The Servants’, “Now I’m old and bored.” Whether self-deprecating or just knowingly smug, it was certainly a clever move to end speculation about the album’s supposed inaccessibility with a song that’s essentially ‘Nevermind’ by numbers. If ‘Serve The Servants’ and sublime first single ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ repeat the ‘Nevermind’ blueprint, second track ‘Scentless Apprentice’ is more thrilling as Nirvana explore harsher, more obtuse territory with lyrics inspired by Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume. ‘Milk It’ is a similarly caustic slow burner as its loose, jazzy intro is smashed by one of the band’s fiercest serrated riffs.

Despite such aggression - complimented by Steve Albini’s vitriolic production - the album allowed Cobain to forge ahead as a more eclectic songwriter than previously suggested. Scott Litt’s mixes of ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and ‘All Apologies’ are commercially palatable, but the lighter hued Steve Albini recordings ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ and ‘Dumb’ are almost as refined. ‘Dumb’ in particular tricks the mind as its simple structure grows with the addition of Kera Schaley’s plaintive cello. Ultimately ‘In Utero’ represents a natural evolution for Nirvana rather than a radical redirection.


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‘MTV Unplugged In New York’ (1994)

If ‘In Utero’ hinted at a growing interest in acoustic-based songwriting, Nirvana’s ‘Unplugged’ set took that interest to a logical conclusion. Stripped of the filth and the fury of many of their key songs, the ‘Unplugged’ set possessed an intensity born from emotional intimacy. The band opted for songs naturally suited to the format rather than dramatically reworking the hits; a move that enabled the likes of ‘About A Girl’ and ‘All Apologies’ to be rediscovered as Nirvana classics. Although ‘Unplugged’ is a little heavy with covers it’s more than compensated for by the strength of their take on David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ and the chilling set closer, American folk standard ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’.


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Words by Ben Hopkins


Read more of Clash Magazine's celebration of the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's 'Bleach'.

A classic interview with Nirvana from 1989 by John Robb
Everett True dispells some myths around Nirvana's final UK appearance at the Reading Festival in 1992
An interview with Sub Pop records boss Bruce Pavitt
Producer Jack Endino recalls the recording of 'Bleach'

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