There are people, usually older people, who will tell you that Gish is actually the Pumpkins’ best album, or their only good album, or something like that. I suspect these people are either just old or they are being deliberately contrarian/curmudgeonish, or they are trying to be hipsters (“I liked the Pumpkins before they were cool”). And I suspect that because, as someone who grew up with the Pumpkins culturally and then only seriously listened to them as an adult, with this being my first even listen to Gish, the idea that this record is their best is a bit of a joke.
So let’s get this out of the way: lumped in with “grunge” by critics who couldn’t figure out the geographic distance between the northwest and the midwest, or who couldn’t figure out the spiritual distance between grunge and whatever this is, the Pumpkins are barely alternative rock. They are “alternative” chronologically and they are alternative because they have a lead singer who would have been unable to make it singing music like this in the ’70s. And they are alternative rock because, yes, they are aware that punk exists and they are aware that a bunch of different post punk and alternative subgenres exist, and they are a little bit influenced by them.
But this record, like their subsequent records, worships at the altar of ’70s rock. If you think Pearl Jam is a classic rock band posing as an alternative rock band, then the Pumpkins aren’t even posing.
Corgan has some way to go as a songwriter which is one reason why I find the idea that this album is their best to be preposterous. This is far from his best set of songs, though they are still quite good. (For all his faults, Corgan is a pretty good songwriter.)
But the band, such as they are in studio, are already here. Regardless of who played what, the finished product is an impressive display of musicianship. And one reason I have such a hard time understanding why some people think this is “grunge” is the premium they put on playing this well.
And the record is produced exceptionally well (despite any revisionist takes). I’m listening to it 30 years later and it sounds fucking fantastic. I can hear every instrument clearly in the mix, everything is in balance, and when it rocks I can really hear it. I’ve been listening to some poorly produced records this past week – it’s all 1991 albums for me this year – and this sounds better than any of them.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether or not this music is “alternative.” It’s extremely successful rock music. But it’s also only their first try at it and they would do better.