In spring of 1991, when Smashing Pumpkins released their debut album Gish, “grunge” had yet to enter the mainstream lexicon. Pearl Jam hadn’t yet released their own debut album, Ten, and Nirvana’s breakthrough second album Nevermind would arrive a few months down the road. So when this Chicago band arrived, brandishing a style heavily influenced by psychedelic rock, metal and dream pop, there was no easy or familiar place for them to fit. Their closest analogues were Jane’s Addiction, when at their heaviest, or My Bloody Valentine and the Cocteau Twins, when indulging in effects- and chemical-addled bliss-outs. They frequently referenced classic rock. They looked like hippies. And yet their arrival seemed to signal something curiously fresh.
Only two years later, Smashing Pumpkins would make good on conquering alternative rock with their epic masterpiece, Siamese Dream. And with it, they would begin to unravel whatever scant threads held them together in the first place, collapsing in a heap of egos, drug addiction, hurt feelings and strange artistic decisions. Most of that came quite a bit later, however, and on Gish, they not only seem unified, but they actually sound more like a whole band than they ever did. Siamese Dream is a much better album on the whole, but there’s a groove and a fluidity to Gish, a rawness that radiates throughout. On acid-grunge burners like “Bury Me,” for instance, the group achieves a taut perfection that far surpassed bands like Jane’s Addiction in terms of sheer sonic dazzle. And in their remastered form on the Deluxe Edition, the album’s ten original tracks sound that much more explosive. In just the first minute of “I Am One,” from Jimmy Chamberlin’s tom-heavy beat to the impending eruption of guitars, that visceral, thick sound packs an even heavier punch than I remembered it.
At this time, however, Billy Corgan was still working out some kinks in his songwriting, and he acknowledges as much in the liner notes of Gish‘s two disc reissue. “The thing about Gish is that there aren’t a lot of great songs, it’s more of a dynamic statement,” he says. That’s true to a point. There are some excellent songs, most of which happen right at the front of the record. The first four tracks – “I Am One,” “Siva,” “Rhinoceros” and “Bury Me” – are essentially flawless. They’re not as polished as later singles or put together with as much care and precision, but what they lack in refinement they more than make up for with sheer thrills. However, from track five on, the album doesn’t quite live up to the promise of those first four songs, though it no doubt has its moments of inspiration. Dream-pop dalliance “Crush” is a pretty tune, though it stalls some of the album’s momentum, and “Snail” is an early epic for the band. But other tracks, like “Suffer” and the D’arcy Wretzky-sung “Daydream,” feel more like filler than essential inclusions.
As discovered by anyone who purchased Pisces Iscariot or The Aeroplane Flies High, however, the Smashing Pumpkins’ b-side and outtake fodder frequently contained some stellar material, even if it sometimes took a little digging to reach. The extras on Gish go a long way in proving that, first and foremost with the band’s Peel Session tracks. Though these have been previously released, they sound no less impressive 20 years down the line. The band is tight, heavy, and above all loud, reinforcing the idea that these four musicians actually spent a lot of time playing together and getting their songs perfect. Meanwhile, the outtake reel has its own share of highlights and curiosities. New mixes and alternate versions of songs like the sprawling “Starla” and Singles contribution “Drown” appear, both of which are essential to a Pumpkins collection. In fact, most of the album’s side two could have been scrapped to make room for those two songs and it’d be approaching perfect. Yet other tracks like “Honeyspider” show a very different side of the Pumpkins, one that borrows more explicitly from shoegazer, the band opting for density rather than impact.
While not perfect, Gish is ultimately a classic album for being the seeds from which something incredible grew. But, in a more bittersweet way, it shows a kind of optimism and cohesion in the band that never really came back, even when their music became more sophisticated. Its raw inspiration was energizing and exciting. Twenty years later, it still is.
Video: Smashing Pumpkins – “Siva”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.