Siamese Dream (reissue)
, December 6th, 2011 12:41
For all its resonance amongst the youth of the day, the voice of grunge was old before its time and world-weary. Although their chagrin and angst centred on teenage preoccupations, Cobain, Vedder, Staley, Lanegan and co. were ancient beings with none of punk's innocence or naivety; an impression compounded by the genre's sonorous, time-worn vocal style. The music - heavy and earthy and creaking - spoke of sufferance; its practitioners clad in rough plaid, as if a toughened outer skin evolved to shield from life's emotional hardships as much as Seattle's cold winters. While punk spoke of wild youth – speed, recklessness, vitality - its heavy metal-infused offspring was weighed down with a consternation uncommon amongst men so young, who at heart weren't very young at all. All told, until Chicago's Gen-x superstars arrived on the scene, the spirit of grunge was anything but teen.
With their 1991 debut Gish and 1993 follow-up Siamese Dream, Smashing Pumpkins reinvented grunge as something exquisitely adolescent. These albums weren't alienated, they were shy; the genre's hard exterior attenuated to a sensitive membrane, because teenagers feel everything. Billy Corgan's voice was androgynous, sometimes hush, while the genre's grizzled brand of pain was duly shipped - replaced with a tender teen melancholy and the almost feminine beauty innate to that. Most crucially, Seattle's hulking bombast was repurposed - now the soaring interludes of awe that defined youth's greatest days, yet underpinned by an intimacy. This was, to misrepresent Corgan's phrase, Cherub-Rock; a kind, heavenly guardian watching over Gen X's kids, spookily attuned to the blue-eyed melodrama of grubby-pretty teenhood. Ever since, Gish and Siamese Dream have been touchstones for band's attempting to capture adolescence, ranging from alt-metallers Deftones, to gauzy punks like The Joy Formidable, to twee-rockers The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, to Nu-gazers like M83.
Gish, also reissued alongside Siamese Dream, is the band itself in its adolescent form. All the elements of their sound are in place, yet the sound of 'Smashing Pumpkins: MTV Icons' in on Gish still immature: half-formed, over-exuberant, doughy with puppy fat, and wastefully realized. Nonetheless, it's all the more charming an album precisely for its clumsy greenness, and foretells of everything they were to accomplish in the coming years.
The first thing you notice about Siamese Dream is how sinister it sounds next to Gish. With the band more or less falling apart at the seams, if grace and goodwill came easy on their debut, on Siamese Dream they had to fight for it. And fight they did. Much more the clenched fist than Gish, their second effort saw an increase in intensity, ballast, grit, ambition and sheer scale. With Corgan losing his mind over the mixing desk, Ida and Wretzky splitting, and Chamberlain's heroin addiction spiralling out of control, rather than admit defeat instead they harnessed the darkness that pervaded the studio. Beginning with a roaring statement of intent in the shape of 'Cherub Rock's intro - the distorted, raging opener followed by the diesel-powered 'Quiet' set the stage for a decidedly monstrous outing; a slacker-gothic cry-from-the-dark which nonetheless, like Gish, was straining for some modicum of beauty.
Out of this emotional gutter came moments which shone all the more brightly in the surrounding darkness, and were all the more poignant for having been hard-earned. Following the depraved stylings of 'Cherub Rock' and 'Quiet', at track three comes the sublime 'Today', a Gen X study in twisted redemption Corgan wrote on what he considered was the darkest day of his life. Hence the bitter irony that opens the song. “Today is the greatest / Day I’ve ever known / Can’t live for tomorrow / Tomorrow’s much too long / I burn my eyes out / Before I get out”. A beautified, stately cousin to Pixies' 'Where Is My Mind', under the guidance of Butch Vig 'Today' presented Cobain's generation-uniting woes in a ravaged yet wholly celestial vessel, thus injecting grunge - what had been up to then an existential dead end of a genre – with an air of hope, adventure and the future.
The rest of the album falls away in a swirl of irregular beauty, outsider gloom and gorgeous rebelliousness, before coming to rest on 'Luna' and a note of serenity. 'Rocket' is a straightforward, rocker. However, with its leftfield melody, economic lead riff and hint of vampish theatre, it could only be work of the Smashing Pumpkins. It's followed by the cinematic 'Disarm', which with its strings and tubular bells added a fairytale dimension to the Pumpkins' sound. Urgent and sad, over elegiac crescendos Corgan tackles the divorce of his parents. He fears he is fated to repeat their mistakes, having inherited their flaws “The killer in me is the killer in you”. Equally as enchanted is 'Spaceboy' - Corgan's dedication to his sickly half-brother, Jesse. As well as a touching love-letter to his younger sibling, 'Spaceboy' doubles both as Corgan's soft evocation of the feeling of being different, and his elegy to the passing of youth. “Space Boy I missed you, swimming round my head'” he muses, bereaving the unique and ultimately fleeting state of mind that defines adolescence, as much his brother's absence. “I wanna go home / I wanna go home”. 'Soma', meanwhile, exemplifies 90s rock's proclivity for blending metaphors of pharmaceutical sedation and love (the legacy of shoegaze and dream pop). Over fuzzy textures, in quiet desperation Corgan pledges to simply just sleep, in an effort to numb his addiction to a pernicious romance.
As well as the original albums, the deluxe reissues here contain an embarrassment of riches. Remastered from the original cuts, each package includes a DVD of never-before-seen live shows, track-by-track commentary from Corgan, liner notes featuring an interview between Corgan and author David Wild, and a smattering of photo collages and postcards. Not for nothing, the discs also boast a combined 32 extra tracks, including unreleased studio takes, acoustic versions, radio sessions, alternative versions and a host of live B-sides. All considered, with or without the extras, together the album's provide a unique insight into the 90s teen experience. After Siamese Dream, the sound of the Smashing Pumpkins developed from a state of fine porcelain adolescence into an ungainly adult. The blustery, bloated Mellon Collie And the Infinite Sadness was a decidedly more harsh and complicated prospect - much like adult life. Cynicism took hold at the heart of the band, and the fairness of Corgan's young dream passed into history. Sooner or later, everybody has to grow up.