Ain’t nothing like the first thing, baby

I must be the only person in the world who can’t stand Siamese Dream.

I picked up Gish on a whim, after seeing a 30-second interview of Smashing Pumpkins on MTV way back in 1991. It was a Sunday, and I was at my library circulation job. Freshman year of college.

I listened to the album every morning on my 45-minute bus commute to school. Jimmy Chamberlain’s drumming, the dual guitar attack of James Iha and Billy Corgan, the rumbling bass of D’Arcy — there was a chemistry on that magnetic strip, and it telegraphed through the earphones into my head. (This was back when a Walkman was a portable cassette player.)

And the songwriting was damn smart — decrescendos, texture changes, time signature changes, accelerandos. These techniques weren’t just thrown into a song just to show off (hello, Sting.) They were carefully planned, almost painstakingly composed.

The bass solo on “I Am One”, the quiet breaks on “Siva”, the meter shift on “Suffer”, the build up on “Window Pane” — it felt organic but deliberate.

Here was a debut album that seemed to portend great things for Smashing Pumpkins.

And great things did happen for the band. And Billy Corgan got full of himself.

For the band’s stature at the time — which was a blip compared to the early rumblings of Soundgarden and pre-Nevermind Nirvana — Gish was an incredibly accomplished album made on what was obviously a budget.

Corgan had to work his way to the opulence that could afford Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Adore. But even on this most earliest of works, the band’s ambitions were brimming.

And I like it better than anything the Pumpkins did after. Those early constraints forced Corgan to keep the ambition in check and to focus on making the songs as strong as they could be without the expanse they couldn’t afford.

Then Smashing Pumpkins became the beacon of rock music for most of the ’90s, and Corgan could afford to think bigger than the last thing he produced. Bigger, though, isn’t necessarily smarter.

By the time Smashing Pumpkins came full circle with Machina/The machines of God — returning to the leaner writing of Gish — it was too late. Smashing Pumpkins’ music got crushed under the weight of its own overdubs.

Which is why Siamese Dream was a let-down for me after years of listening to Gish. It was bloated and sluggish, one mid-tempo song after another, lacking the drive or fire of its predecessor.

I have a mental list of artists who recorded terrific debuts, only to find success with subsequent, lesser albums. Sinéad O’Connor and Sarah McLachlan are on that list.

So too are Smashing Pumpkins, a band that set a high bar for itself at the outset, except no one was around to know it at the time.