Album: The Smashing Pumpkins, "Gish" [Deluxe Edition], "Siamese Dream" [Deluxe Edition] (EMI)
Billy Corgan used to be somebody else. He had hair, for one thing, but more importantly, people ran toward him instead of the opposite way.
The Smashing Pumpkins weren't a wedge issue, as rock bands go. No Nirvana or even Pearl Jam, them, nobody probably ever got in a fist fight arguing about whether the band's frontman was a public nuisance or a genius or a threat to the very fabric of American society. Billy Corgan just wanted to be cared about, and the ironic part is that the sort of people who cared about The Smashing Pumpkins were generally the sort of people who make a big deal about not caring about anything: the band was like the next logical step after goth clubs or meth addiction, outsized plush toy bears ready to soak up every last drop of one's sadness into their immutable hearts, infinite reservoirs for whatever fleeting but profound emotion one wanted to stuff inside of them. Gateway drugs to adulthood. "Someone loved it intensely for one day, and then tossed it," Marla Singer says in "Fight Club" about a thrift store bridesmaid's dress, but she could have just as easily been talking about Billy Corgan.
"I once wrote that Billy Corgan....would never have Kurt Cobain's success because his I]'s don't resonate as We's," Eric Weisbard wrote in SPIN Magazine in 1994, just as the Pumpkins' wave was cresting; "My girlfriend corrected me," he continued. "'His I's don't resonate as I's!'" The mammoth, kersplosive "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" was Corgan's attempt to rectify this disconnect, an all-out bombast-fest that left nothing on the shelf; the studio must have felt like a cross between a war zone and an orgy, a lingering scent of flesh, in any case, that could not have been easily Febrezed away. When they returned a few years later, the volume was turned way down and the color palette had gone dark and monochrome. The band -- and especially Corgan -- seemed to actually become the personification of the dispassion of its own fanbase. Caring seemed exceptionally difficult at this point, and Corgan's pointed insistence that he did not care only seemed to make him appear to care harder. And it got worse from there. Eventually we were left with the greatly reduced PretendPumpkins of today, a band-in-name-only that appears to mainly serve Billy Corgan's desire to not be alone.
But how did we get here? Despite the ubiquity of Corgan's name in articles about The Smashing Pumpkins (including this one) and his legendarily iron-fisted control of the recording process (right down to purportedly playing all the guitar and bass parts on the band's first album), in person they were a real band, and a good one. And if their leader became overly occupied with extracting a certain kind of sound in the studio, it's probably because he had heard what the band was capable in a live setting, where they routinely left hometown crowds gasping for breath in their old Chicago days.
"I Am One" kicks off "Gish" like a boot to the throat. It's the most exciting, visceral thing the band ever did. Two songs later, the slow-burning "Rhinoceros" brings the thing back to earth, pulsating and radio-friendly, all of familiar and strange and delightful. The album alternates between full-blown sonic shredding -- the equivalent in sonic terms of sharks with frickin' lasers nipping at your face -- and surprisingly tender, reflective moments, even if the lyrics never really connect with complex emotions (or sometimes even basic ones -- what feeling could a line like "you wrap your arms around a feeling that surrounds like liquid peppermint; just taste the drinks that she served" possibly be expected to elicit in a listener, other than "what?") or delve very deeply into the human condition. "Siamese Dream" followed the same formula, turned up the amps, and brought out a populist streak in Corgan ("Today is the greatest day I've ever known" cannot be mistaken for anything other than what it is: a line that launches a thousand fist-pumps), but otherwise it's on a par with the band's earlier work. Ear candy or pet rock, even today it feels indulgent. Both albums sport hooks so juicy they practically drip grease in front of the listener. Billy Corgan made emotional comfort food.
The deluxe edition of both of these albums sound great, of course, especially in extricating the levels of bombast one another. The drum sound is particularly revelatory, and demonstrated once again how Jimmy Chamberlin is as necessary as Corgan to a functioning Smashing Pumpkins (and how his most recent departure likely screwed that door tightly shut for good). It's all wildly subjective, of course, but most people will probably enjoy the remastered, cleaned-up sound: the lows seem lower and the highs just a tad brighter.
It's the extra disc of bonus material for each set, however, that makes the whole thing truly worthwhile. "Gish" reveals a treasure trove of vulnerability, with "Starla" in particular showing passion and a youthful willingness to experiment and even fail. An early live favorite, it got lost in the shuffle somehow and ended up buried on one of the band's odds-and-ends sets later in the decade, but it fully merits the new mix given it here. The demos are equally compelling: "Bury Me" feels rockier and more direct than much of the group's later work, while "Blue" and "Jesus Is the Sun" shine new light on people who seem happy to just be making music.
Things get more complicated on "Siamese Dream" and the bonus material reflects it; the group was already starting to fracture, with Chamberlin in particular gone missing in action for days at a time during the set's recording (he would eventually end up in drug rehab shortly after the band left the studio). "I'm surrounded by these people who I care about very much, yet they continue to keep failing me," Corgan told an interviewer in 1993. Consequently the tone of "Siamese Dream" darkened, yet these miniature solar eclipses were not necessarily apparent to a casual observer: while Corgan was singing about today being the greatest day, he was also penning tunes like "Pissant" ("Can't help feeling something's wrong with every one of you ") and "Frail and Bedazzled" ("I lost my soul...It's so unfair"). It was a remarkable trapeze act even for an early '90s rock star (which was not a good time for a delicate ego), and these songs offer an insightful glimpse into the extraordinary pressures that were building inside the band and also inside its leader's psyche, threatening to destroy them all.
The real truth is that the legendary sonic bluster of the first half of "Siamese Dream" is largely just that, the sound of Corgan punching a wall in frustration and anger. The demos -- including a stellar cover of Depeche Mode's "Never Let Me Down Again" -- reveal a truer, more complex depth of honesty than Corgan has ever shown to the public ear. Until now, maybe.