Saturday, August 29, 2009

In memory of a friend - Smashing Pumpkins "Siamese Dream"

A little over twelve years ago I was sharing a house with a friend of mine, Coby, who tried valiantly and, alas, unsuccessfully, to get me to take notice of a band called Smashing Pumpkins. They didn't play Mahler so I took no notice of them. Sadly, Coby died three months ago today, much, much too young and so, in memory of him and of his bright, crazy spirit, I sat down today and, at last, really listened to Smashing Pumpkins with their album Siamese Dream.

It's such a shame that I didn't take notice of this music until now. I would love to have known what Coby's take on it was. To me, it's an album that seems to bring together two very different worlds, almost to the point where you're not always sure just which one you're in - the empty, materialistic, self-deceiving world of modern America, and the painful, struggling world of human relationships.

The music is incredible in the way it reflects these two levels, swapping between them sometimes with almost brutal abruptness as it shifts from soft and intimate acoustic sounds, like chamber music, to the bashing, smashing electric sounds of hard rock. Rarely does a song stay in one groove - and maybe the message here is that the pain and struggles we endure in our personal relationships are very much a part of, and bound up with, the pain and struggles we endure as a society.

Every now and then we have a fuller symphonic sound added into the mix, giving those tracks a feeling of both lyricism and universality - and nowhere is it more powerful than in "Disarm" where, at least for me, those soaring strings and that ominous bass seemed to so eloquently underline the song's words about shared responsibility, shared blame - "the killer in me is the killer in you".

There's a tremendous balance in the way the instruments and the vocals blend all throughout this album, working as a unit to tell a single story - a story that seems to move from its claustraphobic, get-me-out-of-here beginnings, through a journey of loneliness and loss, and taking us eventually to "Silverfuck" with its suicidal undertones - a track which, musically, is an epic in itself, with its tribal beat near the beginning, swapping with the angry bitterness of the lead and bass guitars, through the slowed, faltering heartbeat bass beneath he words "I feel no pain", and the eerie whispering of "bang bang you're dead" and then ending, finally, in a hellish cacophony of noise.

But things don't end there. There is the strange, ironic, unsettling catchiness of "Sweet sweet", a song about a world drowning in agony and sadness. But the album ultimately ends with a question - "What moonsongs do you sing your babies?" asks "Luna", before finally resting into a gentle, resolved declaration of love.

Siamese Dream is certainly an album that takes you to many, many places - musically, emotionally, intellectually. In that sense, it's pretty daring music but also, maybe because of that, you can connect with it in so many ways - you can be challenged by its messages, you can be moved by its heartache, or you can simply be carried away by its phenomenally good music. Or, like me, you can have all three.

A very, very belated thank you to Coby for introducing me to Smashing Pumpkins. I wish, too late, that I could have shared it with you.

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