Smashing Pumpkins’ 1993 album, Siamese Dream, had a lot to live up to. The band’s first album, Gish, had garnered a considerable fanbase, extensive airplay and even led to the band being labelled ‘the next Nirvana.’ Thankfully, their second effort quickly went from being the most anticipated album of 1993, to one of the most critically acclaimed.
The album earned critical acclaim for its seemingly effortless ability to reimagine and blend aspects of prog-rock, shoegaze, and metal – choosing artfully which details to expand and which to rub out entirely. In this way, Siamese Dream became challenging to pin down. Whilst the influence of bands like Deep Purple is evident in the stadium-ready ‘Cherub Rock’ and ‘Hammer’, the album also contains an angular quality more akin to new-wave bands like Television.
It’s undeniable that Butch Vig’s influence as co-producer helped Smashing Pumpkins achieve the accessible, ordered chaos which makes Siamese Dream so enjoyable. After all, he’d done the very same thing for Nirvana just two years before. Siamese Dream swirls with Vig’s signature distortion, imbuing the whole album with warmth and energy, giving songs like ‘Today’ the diaphragm-wobbling impact, which makes them so irresistible. Even today, the album stands out for its sheer textural variety. It’s an amorphous, shape-shifting swirl of a thing, orchestrated to perfection.
And yet, it seems strange for Vig to have been involved at all, considering Billy Corgan’s paranoia of being lumped in with Nirvana and losing the unique identity he and his band had worked so hard to forge. “Let me out of your scene,” Corgan sings in ‘Cherub Rock’, the album’s opening track. It can be no accident that this cry for freedom is one of the first things you hear on the album. At a time when grunge was becoming more and more popular, many people were expecting Smashing Pumpkins to sell out, to exploit the popularity of the genre, and create something designed only to make them as much money as possible. However, they did precisely the opposite, distancing themselves from similar artists and creating a mystique that surrounded the band until its collapse. Anyway, any suspicions regarding Smashing Pumpkins’ authenticity were quickly dispelled when the BBC refused to broadcast ‘Disarm’ because of the lyric “cut that little child”. But, as it had for The Sex pistols before them, all this achieved was to give The Smashing pumpkins a whole heap of cultural cachet.
Of course, these days, it’s hard to look back on Siamese Dream without being reminded of the cruelties and controversies associated with Billy Corgan. Indeed, he’s probably a narcissist with a bit too much money for his own good, but when Siamese Dream was released, he was little more than an ambitious young musician, suffering from the combined onslaught of depression and writer’s block. Perhaps that’s why the album resonated with a generation of young music fans in the way that it did, and why it still perfectly captures the disillusionment and angst of so many young people today. At the time, a key criticism of the album was the obscurity of Corgan’s lyrics and his indecipherable vocal style. Perhaps they thought Corgan wasn’t much of a lyricist or that he didn’t have much to say. But looking back, it’s clear to see that Corgan’s vocals perfectly capture the feeling of being an awkward, anxiety-riddled teenager.
Because of the way in which his lyrics are steeped in a pool of drums and distortion, only occasionally rising to the surface in fragments, the whole album seems to scream whilst simultaneously looking at its feet.
One of the defining albums of the ’90s, Siamese Dream still packs a hell of a punch. It marked a high point in the band’s creativity and, with its lush string arrangements and use of samples, looks ahead to the band’s subsequent album Melon Collie And The Infinite Sadness with excitement and curiosity.