Judged solely by their 1991 debut, Gish, there were few signs that the Smashing Pumpkins could have produced a work as disciplined and cohesive as their sophomore effort, Siamese Dream. Though Gish was grungy and rhythmic, with threads of artsy, Moody Blues-inspired psychedelia sewn throughout, it also contained its fair share of self-obsessed rock clichés, including screeching, masturbatory guitar solos, and enough pseudo-spiritual, rock-as-religion metaphors to makes Chris Cornell’s lyrics sound positively literary. Whether it was frontman Billy Corgan’s near-suicidal bouts of depression, or the agony of touring, or simply their near-brush with stardom, the band quickly found its soul, and by 1993 they had mastered an indelible blend of Gen-X angst and smartly delivered guitar prowess. The Pumpkins were no longer acid headbangers, but purveyors of a far more elegant, melancholic brand of alternative rock, and they had precision in spades: Despite its bristling distortion, Siamese Dream remains an album of meticulous execution, as expertly layered, arranged, and recorded as any rock album from the past two decades.
From the very start of the album, as listeners are head-rushed by the towering introduction of “Cherub Rock,” the band seems possessed, with a kind of tenacious determination than runs throughout each of the 13 tracks. And yet, if longstanding rumors are to be believed, it was most likely a galvanized and reinvigorated Corgan playing all those guitar and bass parts; that he ostensibly both wrote and performed much of the album himself presents an interesting dichotomy where incredibly self-assured melodies are paired with lyrics plagued by insecurity and apprehension. Often, while Corgan wilts under the struggles of parental neglect, impending divorce, and the expectations of fame, the music soars, as on “Hummer,” where boredom with love is buoyed by shimmering, molten guitar lines, and “Rocket,” where the track’s rising cadence is laced with Corgan’s flailing desperation.
On an album like Siamese Dream, where every track feels momentous in hindsight, it can be easy to overlook the truly seminal offerings. Certainly, “Disarm” is a watershed moment for the band, a shattering of the ’90s-rock mold in both instrumentation and tone; but then, so is “Soma,” a painful, personal tale of separation that finds the group at both their quietest and loudest in a stormy, near-seven-minute guitar epic. “Mayonaise,” perhaps the band’s greatest moment, is both tragic and gorgeous, with its infamously whistling guitars and a pitch-perfect Corgan unloading a lifetime’s worth of raw-nerved pain in one of his most harrowing vocal performances.
Though the Smashing Pumpkins wouldn’t reach their loftiest heights until the release of the more arch and thematic Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness two years later, Siamese Dream retains a pugnacious, even roguish quality. The anger and sorrow here is fresh and visceral, as if the very act of writing and performing these songs reopened Corgan’s wounds. One could look no further than “Quiet,” a track that touches on the same kind of child abuse cataloged in “Disarm,” to hear how the band turns the singer’s seething resentment into a display of purifying self-empowerment. It’s on Siamese Dream that the Pumpkins first perfected the art of finding triumph in tragedy, which is why it remains a bold manifesto of their ascension into rock royalty.