“Blew”

We’ll start off with the band’s first studio album, and while it’s not, strictly speaking, their first release, what I think I’ll do is work through the LP tracks first (in chronological order), followed by a look at the non-album stuff in a less structured manner.

For all their reticence, post-Nevermind, at being labeled “heavy metal” (mostly relating to what was, at the time, considered “heavy metal” as a short hand term and the gender/ sexuality issues the band perceived the popular incarnation to have), the first studio album the band produced is, in many ways, a classic heavy metal record.  The tempo to many of these tracks- “Blew” especially- is leaden, slow, and thick.  The band was always (rightfully) identified less with the flanneled, Hessian-sludge of many of their Northwestern contemporaries, and more with the pop soul that got punk rock the initial attention that, say, no-wave never got.  The more you listen to Bleach, however, with a couple exceptions, it makes you wonder if that maybe started somewhere later on.  Cobain would later claim that the sound of Bleach was largely born of pressure from the label to shoehorn the songs into the “Seattle” or “grunge” sound at the time, but Cobain was such a prolific re-writer of his own history it’s difficult to tell how true that is.  In his defense, however, there exists a chunk of rarities from that time period that are certainly more of the “new wave” or “pop” variety.

Lyrically, “Blew” is very simple and, like many of Cobain’s songs (specifically the earlier ones), almost impossible to decipher.  There is some interesting wordplay here, though, that seems to point to what became a touchstone for Kurt- his strange juxtaposition of very specific words and concepts.  A lot of this would come together to form what was his “voice,” as a writer- he very certainly had a definite style and point of view, and skewed manner of expressing a thought that was unique to his perspective.  Reading “Blew” independent of the music, it seems fair to guess that the writer has an enthusiasm for words, and not in the sort of prosaic, Dickensian sense, but more in the way that he hits on a specific choice because of the way it sounds and feels, and less for it’s referential value or even specific meaning.

“If you wouldn’t mind, I would like to blew,” naturally, makes little-to-no sense, and though I do think it’s a memorable line, I wouldn’t want to argue that it has some great poetic significance.  Cobain was, of course, absolutely capable of this, and shows it often, even on this very record.  But “Blew” is not that (at least as it starts)- “Blew” is pure wordplay, and while he’d have better stabs at that free-formed word choice in the band’s oeuvre, there is something uniquely humorous about that first line.

Of course, like much of Cobain’s work, the spirit of the sentiment isn’t just fluid from song to song- it’s fluid from line to line.  Where we start with a nearly absurd but evocative line as the song turns a corner, it’s first verse flows into what would be, throughout their many songs, classic Cobain- a sort of anxious ennui that plays out in turns as melancholy, anger or sarcasm.  Here, it appears to be taking shape as the latter two- if you “wouldn’t mind”, Kurt would like to “lose” (sarcasm), “leave” (anger), “breathe” (angry sarcasm).

This sort of carries over into the first line of the chorus- “is there another reason for your stain?” (sarcastic anger, I suppose), but then takes a sharp turn to fill-a-syllable-ville.  “Could you/ believe who/ we knew/ stress or strain?”  There’s certainly a clear idea there, and there is something to the disjointed rhythm of the sentiment as it moves along with the start-stop nature of the chorus.  The follow up, of course, “Is there/ another/ word that/ rhymes with stain?” is a sort of junior high solipsism that, thankfully, Cobain quickly grew out of.

Overall, the lyrics to “Blew” are notable, I think, for two reasons- their self-acknowledged lack of maturity, and the coda.  Even while expressing some level of discomfort or anger, there’s a sense that Cobain doesn’t feel like he really knows where the anger is directed or why he’s feeling it (note all the question marks), and the attempts at humor signify that he’s not entirely ready to take it or himself entirely seriously just yet.  He’s mad, but he’ll probably sit back and take it for a while longer.

The coda is interesting in it’s out-of-nowhere expression of hope and optimism.  “You could do anything.”  Who could do anything?  Given the evidence we have of Cobain as a writer, it’s not easy to defend the idea that he’s addressing himself.  The line doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of the song, so there isn’t much use trying to use that as a guide.  When you really look at it, it absolutely qualifies as one of his strangest lyrics.  It’s not “You could have done anything,” for instance.  There’s no acidic hedging or peripheral pessimism.  It’s simply an expression of plain-faced confidence, an expression that Cobain didn’t seem to want to follow up.  The first Nirvana song on the first Nirvana record was, it may seem, also a  “last” in this way.

So while this drop-D metal setpiece is hardly ground-breaking musically, there is a perspective lyrically- though not as sharp and biting as Cobain will eventually become- not often found in these thunking, Nordic sorts of metal songs.  Cobain would later make a concerted effort to point out that much of what comprised Bleach‘s lyrics were largely meaningless to him, and dashed off last minute, but as with any work of art, it’s largely impossible to separate it from it’s creator.

Of course, Bleach was famously recorded for just over six hundred dollars, and while there is a bit of a hiss and a first-take feeling to a lot of the drum parts, the performances on the album as a whole are strikingly immediate, and “Blew” is an excellent example.  The perfectly timed feedback squeal as the guitar comes in; the inventive lead guitar noodling in the verse; the tight, disciplined guitar solo.  Nirvana was, at the end of the day, a very efficient, tight studio band.

In many ways, “Blew” is Bleach in a nutshell- remarkably catchy, heavy (to the point that it must have surprised people that bought it months after first experiencing Nevermind), lyrically a bit oblique.  It may be, literally, the heaviest song Nirvana ever released- performed in drop-D tuning, it was mistakenly adjusted down another step while being mixed, resulting in it actually being drop-C.  It was never changed back.

“Blew” was the title track to the later released Blew EP, which was a promotional effort by Sub Pop to match up with their European tour.  Unlike most of Bleach, “Blew” appeared on Nirvana setlists throughout their existence, which is a tribute to it’s strength as a song (especially considering how quickly the band dropped the large bulk of tunes from this era from it’s performances).

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~ by Timothy Rogan on December 3, 2008.

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