Counterbalance No. 154: Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Siamese Dream’

Smashing Pumpkins
Siamese Dream

Klinger: Over the last three years, I think I have pretty established myself as someone who has virtually no nostalgia for the 1990s. Maybe it’s because they remind me of my post-college years of uncertainty, poverty, and abject slackerdom. Maybe it’s because I was in a band of my own, and while I was on the road I heard every permutation of “alternative” music played by great, near-great, OK, and downright awful bands throughout the region. Maybe it’s just because I was a cranky young man. But even as I listen to artists I enjoy, it’s always tempered with memories of vomit-colored cardigans and thrift-store shoes. And somehow Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream exemplifies all of that in one 60-minute package.

Part of me objectively understands that there’s a lot to like about Siamese Dream. Billy Corgan frequently exhibits a flair for melody, especially in the opening “Cherub Rock”-“Quiet”-“Today”-“Hummer” quadfecta. Jimmy Chamberlin is a powerhouse drummer, chemical issues aside. And there’s something to be said for the group’s Americanized take on shoegaze (stripped down and streamlined from My Bloody Valentine’s wall of feedback, to be sure, but the feel is there). So why, even after repeated listenings, am I unable to feel much of anything about this record? Is that by design? Is it reflecting the alienation of its era? Or does it all just get kind of boring after a while? Help me out, Mendelsohn, before I slip back into the old Gen-X miasma and start trying to read Prozac Nation or something.

Mendelsohn: Nostalgia is a hard thing to undo, Klinger. There is nothing I can say to make you feel the way that I feel about this record. I can’t make you feel the summer heat of a Midwestern July as I walked behind a lawn mower, letting this record bleed into my brain as the incessant hum of the engine and the overdubbed guitars melted into a gigantic wall of sound that helped insulate my teenage years. I can’t make you feel the conflict within my gut, every time I hear this record, knowing that the Smashing Pumpkins were an also-ran alternative band that seemingly sold out. I’m simultaneously disgusted and enthralled every time I hear this record, knowing that this is probably the closest they ever got to rock perfection before performing a monumental cash-grab with Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.

Somewhere in between my teenage nostalgia and your Gen-X miasma lies the true heart of this record. A record that is meticulously put together, so much so that it’s almost too much to take in at one time, with all of the overdubs and orchestration pouring out of the speakers behind the constant wall of feedback. It’s in there somewhere, Klinger. Our job is to dig it out and find out why the critics found it so alluring. My guess is the critics enjoyed the change of pace from grunge bands updating classic rock riffs to the Smashing Pumpkins’ take on psychedelica. Neo-Sabbathisms will only get you so far.

Klinger: Yes, it’s pretty clear that critics then, as now, appreciated Corgan’s more meticulous take on alt-rock. Even now, as the record turns 20—and gives a bunch of alt-rockers a case of the sads as they start to feel all old and stuff—articles and encomiums abound talking about Corgan as the sober yin to Cobain’s raging yang (well not, you know, sober, but…), and Siamese Dream as a counterbalance to the grunge riff-rockery of the time. And while again, there’s a lot of beauty in this album, I can’t help thinking that Siamese Dream‘s true legacy might actually be the tasteful indie pop that’s been a staple of the last decade or so. Many is the time I’ve been listening to a “Soma” or a “Mayonaise” while I’m driving and I half expect to hear a CBC Radio 2 DJ chime in at the end.

But Corgan was tailor-made for ’90s critical acclaim, and even pop stardom (much as we claimed to be very, very concerned about selling out back in those days). He was steeped in classic rock tradition, and still aware of the pitfalls that go along with it. That’s true for a lot of artists from that era, and it may explain why so many musicians could write indelible tunes and then seemingly shrug them off with what appears to be indifference (by giving them titles like “Mayonaise”, for instance). But Smashing Pumpkins seemed far more willing to walk that line between being larger-than-life rock stars and attempting to distance themselves from the title. If anything, it was their angst that seemed like the disingenuous part.

Mendelsohn: I think the angst was real. But I don’t think it’s the same angst that drove Cobain and Nirvana. The Smashing Pumpkins just didn’t fit in with the sort of existential nihilism at the heart of the grunge movement. The Pumpkins came out of the shoe gazer mold that spawned MBV and Sonic Youth; there’s a bit more introspection behind the wall of noise. The posture of detachment was just the stance de rigueur. It was the 1990s, everyone was detached.

I think the angst stems from Corgan’s drive to create an album that may have been possible only in his own head. The guy was wound pretty tight. He literally lived in the studio while they were making the album—because he had nowhere else to go—and racked up a quarter of a million dollars in expenses. And it’s not like the band’s debut was a huge blockbuster — 1991’s Gish did moderately well, but Corgan was still living in a parking garage or something like that before they started making Siamese Dream. On top of that, he pretty much alienated himself from the rest of the band because he insisted on playing all of the instruments himself. By then he had gained a reputation in the music industry of being a careerist dick. The angst was real and it might be the most genuine angst to come out of the ’90s. Self-centered, but genuine.

All the angst was validated with both critical and commercial acclaim. Corgan managed to make an impressive record—a cathartic experiment full of self-awareness as he mixed feedback in to lush, orchestrated pop. Oddly enough, “Mayonaise” might be the best example on the album.

Klinger: I get all that, but I suspect that this is just one of those albums that I’m going to have blinders on about. These things happen. Maybe part of my issue is that I can’t quite relate to the bits of heavy rockery throughout the album. Once I’ve gotten myself into the riff-swamp of something like “Geek U.S.A.”, I find myself shifting uncomfortably in my seat and wondering if we’re coming up on the end of the record anytime soon. And like I said, part of that is due to the fact that I spent a huge chunk of time hearing very similar music, performed with varying degrees of success, in bars, small theaters, and delis throughout the Midwest.

And as I’m sure I’ve said countless times throughout this project, I recognize that that’s more or less on me. We all bring our own baggage to everything we listen to, especially with a project that forces us to listen to the Great List in order. (And yes, the shift from the Flying Burrito Brothers into this has been a bit jarring. But hey, Sly and the Family Stone next week!) Is there any one aspect of Smashing Pumpkins that you prefer over another? Is it the harder bits or the dreamy pop that gets you? Or is there some other facet of this music that I haven’t yet picked up on?

Mendelsohn: The thing that makes Siamese Dream special is the dream pop. That’s the magic ingredient. It’s like sugar. Use too little and your dish tastes bland, use too much and you’ve ruined it. But you can’t just serve sugar. That’s the true beauty of this record. Corgan managed to marry the hard rock of the day—the guitar language that, while not necessarily dated, speaks to a specific time in music history—with the sweetness of pop that transcends time and place. It was done with such assuredness and aplomb that you can place a song like “Geek U.S.A.”, with its full-throttle feedback, next to the lilting “Sweet Sweet” without a second thought. If you think about it, the cohesiveness in this record is outstanding, and that isn’t something easily achieved.

It some respects, parts of Siamese Dream are just more of the same alternative rock that dominated the musical landscape of the early 1990s. But taken as a whole, the album is much more than the staid rock riffs that came pouring out of every bar, small theater, and deli (where were you eating?) in the Midwest. It’s not the normal, loud-quiet-loud formal that so many grunge bands employed. The album is loud when it needs to be, quiet when the time is right, and the expanse in between became Corgan’s personal playland to craft a record that the breadth of which, in terms of alternative rock, remains unmatched.