The Smashing Pumpkins’ debut album “Gish” (1991) was released just a few months before Nirvana’s “Nevermind”, which drastically changed the future of Alternative Rock in the United States. Alt-Rock being a somewhat vague term, The Pumpkins’ sound differed significantly from Kurt Cobain’s songwriting, yet that intimidating bar was set high nevertheless—not to mention Butch Vig, the man who produced “Nevermind”, was working closely with The Pumpkins. “Gish” had found warm reception and minor success, especially with a younger audience, so the followup album was expected to do great things. All of this burden wore heavily on Billy Corgan, guitarist/vocalist/mastermind behind the band. The result was “Siamese Dream” (1993), a less spiritual, more dark, angsty amalgamation of any number of musical sources.
The Smashing Pumpkins’ lineup at the time was as they had been from their start: Billy Corgan (lead guitar, vocals), James Iha (rhythm guitar), D’arcy Wretzky (bass), and Jimmy Chamberlin (drums). Though the story changes officially, it’s said that Corgan would end up doing most of the guitar and bass parts in the recording—a testament to his infamous ‘control-freak’ reputation. That being considered, it’s interesting to hear just how much of a solo-effort Siamese Dream is; it seems to be the personal intimacy from songwriters like Corgan and Kurt Cobain that appeal so well to their listeners.
The album starts with “Cherub Rock”, a kind of dreamy, prog-rock song that calls out the music industry. The chorus asks “Who wants honey / As long as there’s some money”, with Corgan going on to admit “I know, I know, I know / Should have listened when I’m told.” As what is supposedly the last song written for the album, it’s a thankfully lighter tone to begin on, while keeping the frustration that went into making it all.
Corgan’s voice has always been this charming, strange mixture of husky echoes and throaty screeches, which in the case of the shoegazing “Quiet”, fits in perfectly as another instrument amidst a wall of fuzzy power chords. Lyrically, it’s a pretty literal cry for help, sounding as if coming from an ignored child.
“Today” has lived on as arguably the most popular single from Siamese Dream—and from the 90s as a whole. It’s the most deceptively soft tracks on the album, masking suicidal thoughts behind a sweetly ironic chant of “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever know”. The verses are light and sparse before kicking into the distorted and heavy chorus—a very Pixies-esque technique that was used liberally in Nirvana’s breakthrough work.
“Hummer” is a 7-minute track that passes through multiple guitar progressions, all the while anchored by a very dream-pop verse. It seems to not so much summarize everything Corgan writes about as it does throw them all into question for the audience, like a stream of consciousness that covers everything from body image, love, disenchantment, and depression. The advanced playing here really distinguishes The Pumpkins from many alt-rockers, who typically get a bad wrap as unskilled or at least ungraceful with their instruments.
“Rocket” is a song about trying to let go of the pressures that surrounded Corgan, seemingly through the means of just becoming numb to everything; “Consume my love, devour my hate”.
“Disarm” is a pseudo-solo acoustic pop ballad, that harkens back to Corgan’s (or his speaker’s) lonely childhood, and how it’s affected him to this day—contrasting a “little boy” with the ‘killer’ in him. Though it’s a quieter and more personal song, the use of a string arrangement over the chorus and the constant bell-ringing backbeat give it a sort of grandiose importance.
From this point onwards, the album takes a generally softer, more experimental route with each song—not all of which pay off as well as some of the earlier tracks, but which give the album a kind of longevity. “Soma” is this very gentle, psychedelic rock with Corgan’s crooning initially only back by slow chords, before kicking into the full band, and the strongest guitar solo on the album.
“Geek USA”’s verses take some hints of metal, with some particularly impressive drumming from the criminally underrated Chamberlin. There’s a brief respite in the middle, before the guitar solo shreds in—Corgan himself has referred to the song as a kind of compression of “Gish” into one song.
“Mayonnaise” is another shoegazing track; in what could easily have been the most melodramatic track, Corgan and Vig’s production subtleties turned it into perhaps the songs strength. The feedback on Corgan’s guitar creates this charming little whistling between it all, as Corgan again explores his own psyche: “Out of hand and out of season / Out of love and out of feeling”.
“Spaceboy” seems to be a tribute to David Bowie, both in style and substance, with Corgan even namedropping “Mr. Jones” (Bowie’s real surname). The string arrangement playing under the song sounds like a prototype for the pseudo-orchestra instrumentations that would shine in The Pumpkin’s next album, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” (1995).
“Silverfuck” is the album’s last chance to vent any and all excess angst, in a nearly 9-minute track that peels back several layers of progressions before hitting an ambient, minimalist rock bottom, slowly and screechingly climbing it’s way back up for the song’s distorted and frayed climax.
“Sweet Sweet” is a quick little love poem, complete with vocal harmonizing between the band and a nice little melodic riff—it’s placement in the album between the final push and the windown is strange, however.
The album ends with the poppy love song “Luna”, suggesting a sort of ironic swapping of thematic focus after “Silverfuck” seemingly drained the band. The album ends with Corgan serenading the moon with his love; simultaneously a “good night” to the album and a foreshadowing of the spacey-love songs that would comprise much of their next album.
Billy Corgan is nothing if not ambitious with the scope of his vision, even if that vision is a clouded version of his own downfall. Siamese Dream is jammed with angst, frustration, and often hopelessness, conveyed through every alt-rock genre from grunge to prog-rock to shoegazing—and it all draws the listener in wonderfully.