Of the two alt-rock landmarks produced by Butch Vig in the first half of 1991, only one was destined to change the world. Recorded from May to June and released in September, Nirvana’s Nevermind was muddy Northwestern punk presented as pristinely as possible. Even if you didn’t know what Kurt Cobain was all about, you felt his pain and screamed along with every chorus.
It’s way harder finding a way into Gish, the debut album from The Smashing Pumpkins. Tracked just before Nevermind and released 25 years ago today (May 28, 1991), the album doesn’t have anything even close to a “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It’s filled with menacing rockers and twinkling ballads bearing the influence of '60s psychedelia, '70s arena rock, and '80s goth and shoegaze. With a voice pitched somewhere between choirboy and hellspawn, group mastermind Billy Corgan never resembles any type of weirdo you remember from high school. He’s a six-foot-three space alien whose band throws down like Guns N’ Roses on a My Bloody Valentine trip.
The sound of Gish -- textured yet super direct, with drums that wallop -- is very much a product of Vig’s approach to recording. The then-unknown Wisconsin producer would spend hours fussing with amps and drums, and Corgan would sing take after take of the same song. Before Gish hit, the Pumpkins were still a regional Chicago act used to playing for indifferent audiences on weekday nights. They didn’t yet have the luxury to try anything cute.
Although Corgan reportedly handled much of the guitar and bass work, Gish features what’s become known as the classic Pumpkins lineup. There was James Iha on rhythm guitar, D’arcy Wretzky on bass, and the incomparable Jimmy Chamberlain on drums. There’s virtually none of the extra instrumentation that would turn up four years later on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the ambitious double LP that established the Pumpkins as one of the decade’s most important groups. Gish is mostly raw materials, a pile of rocks waiting to become a great cathedral. There’s cryptic poetry, jarring dynamic shifts, mammoth riffs, and moments of startling beauty -- everything fans around the world would love about the Pumpkins once they grew into themselves.
Despite its visceral sound and lack of obvious singles, Gish sold more than 100,000 units within the first year, exceeding the expectation of Caroline Records, the Virgin-affiliated indie label that Corgan opted for instead of signing with a major. This music was finding an audience, and Corgan was finding himself as a songwriter. The Pumpkins would reach the Top 10 with their much-improved sophomore set, 1993’s Siamese Dream (also produced by Vig), and then explode in the second half of the decade, when the Nirvana-shaped hole in the alt-universe was very much in need of filling.
Gish is where the story begins. Before Corgan became more famous for his interview sound bites than for his music, he was a true rock 'n' roll misfit who could simultaneously melt your face, squeeze your soul, and boggle your mind. That’s what he does on the best moments of Gish.
Read on for a track-by-track review.
“I Am One”: The Pumpkins begin by taking us down to their version of “Paradise City,” where the riffs are mean and the lyrics are pretty vague. Corgan says the song, co-written by Iha, has something to do with the Holy Trinity. Whatever the theological implications, Billy deserves some worship for the screechy guitar-god solo he unleashes at 2:50. There’s no dogma about disguising your musicianship guiding this band.
“Siva”: Corgan is wounded and confused, and he’s got a couple ways of dealing with it. The first: raging, which he and Chamberlain spend most of the track doing. The hard rock subsides during the two quiet dreamy bits, which another group might have saved for a separate song. Rather than sounding like gimmicks, the Pumpkins’ loud-soft shifts feel like natural fluctuations. Corgan follows his feelings wherever they take him.
“Rhinoceros”: Billy admits he was tripping balls when he wrote this psychedelic goth ballad about a mystery girl, an ice-cream party he’s planning for June, and the “mustard lies” he wishes to reveal. “She knows, she knows, show knows,” he sings over patient jangle that gives way to otherworldly reverb. As long as someone knows what’s up.
“Bury Me”: The lyrics are definitely secondary on this blistering metal shape-shifter. It starts with slithering bass and needling guitar riffage, then goes shoegazer around 3:00. “She will bury me,” Corgan sings rather serenely toward the end, like he’s getting into the idea of being smothered by love.
“Crush”: As the bass tiptoes across the bedroom, trying not to squeak a floorboard, Corgan whispers sweet nothings to his sleeping lover. If he’s paraphrasing the Beatles and the Stones, the gorgeous pond-ripple guitar tone is all his own.
“Suffer”: Chamberlain’s jazzy rhythms combine with Corgan’s warped theremin-esque guitar and what sounds like a pan flute to create a weird lullaby about cleansing yourself to achieve peace of mind. It’s the kind of stuff cult leaders talk about, though most never have theme music this convincing.
“Snail”: On this swirly low-key psych-rock meditation, Corgan compares himself to the titular terrestrial gastropod mollusk. He’s hiding under the covers, wasting his life away. “When you wake up, you’re all weak,” Corgan sings, switching from the airy vocals of the verses to a scratchy delivery he’s dredged up from someplace very real.
“Tristessa”: The string of slow ones comes to an end with this nondescript snarler, named for a Jack Kerouac novella about a Mexican prostitute. Corgan’s hard rock here isn’t a whole lot artsier than what GNR or Motley Crue were doing around the same time, so it’s funny to think this was a Sub Pop single.
“Window Paine”: It’s Link Wray’s classic 1958 rock 'n' roll instrumental “Rumble” tricked out with a soaring guitar solo and lyrics about overcoming darkness and shame. At 4:20, everything drops out, leaving Corgan to look himself in the mirror and brace for a new day.
“Daydream”: The influence of My Bloody Valentine and the Cocteau Twins comes to the fore, and so does bassist D’arcy Wretzky, who handles lead vocals. Her flat, earnest singing is just what the song needs, and when the strings seep in beneath the acoustic guitar, the Pumpkins end on a real high note. Or do they? After 10 seconds of silence, Corgan returns with “I’m Going Crazy,” a 30-second restatement of what, by now, is pretty apparent. Fans who felt at this point that Corgan could’ve used an editor were in for years of frustration.