An expanded reissue of the Pumpkins’ potential-rich 1991 debut.
Jaime Gill 2011-11-21
"All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure," Enoch Powell once observed. The same laws apply to pop lives, of course. Just compare the current dispiriting demise of R.E.M. with the glorious prime-time swansong of The Smiths, or contrast the adulation of Kurt Cobain – forever 27 – with the scorn heaped on his rival Billy Corgan, whose ongoing self indulgence and increasingly haphazard music have so tarnished the reputation of The Smashing Pumpkins.
Which is why this lavish re-issue of the band’s debut is a perfect opportunity to rediscover why his band were, for a while, so exciting and absurdly gifted. Formed shortly after Guns N' Roses had exploded into global fame, and releasing 1991’s Gish a few months before Nirvana’s Nevermind wrestled US rock in a new direction, it would be easy to see the Pumpkins as a mutant trapped between triumphalist hair metal and neurotic grunge. That would explain the album’s tussle between thunderous rock bravado and squealing guitar solos on songs like I Am One, with the soul-baring neurosis of reveries like Suffer.
However, this theory shortchanges Gish’s lovely complexity, and overlooks the sheer range of Corgan’s musical tastes and the outrageous raw talent with which he channelled them. The ghost of UK shoegazing is also present in the narcotic throb of Window Paine, while Corgan’s psychedelic leanings are given full rein in the shifting, shimmering sweetness of Crush.
The extra tracks included on the re-issue are further evidence of Corgan’s fanboy obsessions, taking in full-blooded prog-rock on the sprawling Starla, abandoned to shoegazing FX-freak-out on Honeyspider or revelling in numbskull-riffed sleaze-rock on Plume. There’s even Beatlesy acoustic whimsy on Jesus Is the Sun, though this is one of those hidden treasures that could happily have stayed hidden.
Given these warring musical instincts, it’s remarkable in retrospect how coherent Gish is, how confidently it shifts between the guitar-revving of Siva and the soft seductions of Rhinoceros. It’s also a surprisingly small and subtle album. Corgan’s ambitions would soon vault the band to the glorious heights of Siamese Dream, a record as ambitious and beautiful as anything else released in the 1990s, and then on into the bloated follies that would destroy this loveliest version of his band. Captured here, however, the band is still full of the future, and as fascinating and beguiling as such things always are.