Smashing Pumpkins

     Gish (Virgin, 1991)
     Siamese Dream (Virgin, 1993)
   Pisces Iscariot (Virgin, 1994)
     Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (Virgin, 1995)
   Adore (Virgin, 1998)
  Machina/The Machines of God (Virgin, 2000)
   Zeitgeist (Reprise, 2007)

One of the most ambitious alt-rock bands of the 1990s was also one of the most old-fashioned. For 10 years, Billy Corgan led his band, the Smashing Pumpkins, on a sublime and often ridiculous quest for 1970s-style rock & roll glory at a time when lots of bands seemed more skeptical than ever about the rewards of fame. Corgan's dream came true, at least for a while, and like most rock stars worth talking about, he earned enemies who were, if anything, even more passionate than his fans.

The first Smashing Pumpkins album was Gish, a grand, furious album full of expansive guitar solos and other indulgences that underground rockers were supposed to disavow. Corgan's airy, supple voice spilled out in wisps and bursts, often matching the shifting sounds of the guitar; one of his most effective tricks was to match a guitar line exactly, so that voice and instrument blended into one semi-human sound. Gish includes the band's extraordinary breakthrough single, "Siva," which crams eight minutes' worth of twists and turns into a song half that long. The lyrics, by turns whiny ("Don't wanna live in your misery") and whimsical, seem to refract hard-rock themes from across the decades without committing to any of them, and the refrain captured the mixture of urgency and apathy that would define the band for years: "Tell me, tell me what you're after/ I just wanna get there faster."

Siamese Dream was even grander, prettier and more atmospheric than Gish: Drummer Jimmy Chamberlin toned down his funk backbeats, letting the bumblebee swarms of guitar notes drive the fuzzy songs forward. And Corgan wrote a batch of songs that captured something more disquieting than sadness: the dismal suspicion that you might not feel anything at all. One of the album's biggest hits, "Today," has a deceptively blissful opening that soon gets subtly and bitterly modified: "Today is the greatest day I've ever known" becomes "Today is the greatest day I've never known."

After the success of Siamese Dream, the band threw hard-core fans (and perhaps impatient record executives) a bone with Pisces Iscariot, a compilation of B-Sides and demos. It's uneven by design, but there's plenty to amuse the faithful including "Blew Away," a Beatles-damaged ballad sung by guitarist James Iha; a quiet, Bowie-fied cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide"; and best of all, Corgan's petulant liner notes, which end, "and fuck you to to those who will never understand."

Of course nothing says "fuck you" like a sprawling double album, so Corgan got to work, and in 1995 the band released Melon Collie & the Infinite Sadness, two CDs that gave Corgan plenty of space to embrace, renounce, and mock his new reputation as rock's most self-pitying swaggerer. (The album includes some of his most famous and ridiculous lines such as, "Despite all my rage,

I am still just a rat in a cage.") It's not flawless, but there are plenty of hits (the gorgeous ballad "Tonight, Tonight," the gently tangled "1979"), and lots of surprises, too, including a thick electrometal cut called "Love."

And then something went wrong. The band split with Chamberlin and recorded Adore, a single-disc album that felt twice as long as Melon Collie, full of overlong atmospheric songs that never got going. Chamberlin returned for Machina/The Machines of God, a return to form that wasn't: The arrogance and dreaminess of the best Smashing Pumpkins albums were gone, replaced by lukewarm tunes and oddly straightforward songwriting.

In 2001, Corgan recruited a group of alt-rock veterans (including Chamberlin) and formed the short-lived Zwan, which produced a surprisingly strong album called Mary Star of the Sea before disbanding. Finally, in 2007, the Pumpkins were resurrected—sort of. The bombastic Zeitgeist was performed entirely by Chamberlin and Corgan, and its title was way off—it was as rooted in giant Seventies rock as any Pumpkins LP. But although C & C clearly slaved over the material, adding strings, marimbas and tons of overdubs, it was alternately self-parodic and a little cheesy. Heavy-handed poetry like "Born of love and cast in light / don't you know we cannot die?" (from "Starz") didn't help much, either.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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