Even since the days of Gish, Billy Corgan’s ambitions have outshined his humanity. Save for a few notable moments, The Smashing Pumpkins’ albums have always been about art more than they have been about emotion. Even the most intimate moments — the downcast first act of “Soma”, the loving tribute that is “For Martha” — portray an artist who hold his audience at arm’s length, someone at least as much in love with the act of creation as he is the idea of putting his emotions on display for all to see.
What made Pisces Iscariot such a revelation, even after only two proper albums, was just how open it felt. The opening strains of “Soothe” offer a Billy Corgan as naked and vulnerable as he has ever been. “Pissant” is two minutes of compressed, controlled rage. “Landslide” is a note-for-note copy of Stevie Nicks’ original, a little bit of hero-worship. “Plume” plodded and droned with the best of the grunge anthems, an expression of boredom that, crucially, never actually bores. “Starla” is the song that always offered hope for the longest Pumpkins songs even as those songs could never match up. Even “Spaced”, two minutes of ugly, tuneless dross, is admirable in its experimental bent; even Billy at his most artistic never bothered to go this far off the deep end on his proper albums.
Corgan even goes so far as to release the reins for one track, James Iha’s impossibly beautiful “Blew Away”, one of the most underappreciated songs in the Pumpkins canon.
Where Smashing Pumpkins albums always feel like Grand Artistic Statements, presentations of sorts offering the result of theatrically grand aspirations, Pisces Iscariot feels like a conversation. It’s the little mixtape that could, complete with anecdotes and explanations from Billy himself right there in the liner.
That Pisces Iscariot would be reissued now is important, because it comes at a time when Corgan is in the midst of something like an artistic renaissance, putting out his best collection of songs since the first time he retired the Pumpkins name in the form of Oceania. Oceania is as beautiful as it is inscrutable, contrasting songs with titles like “The Celestials”, “Panopticon” and “Glissandra” with some of the most straightforward, yet beautifully-constructed rock ‘n roll he’s managed in years. Like those old albums, though, Oceania functions best as an art piece, an effort that stimulates the brain while largely ignoring the heart. Combine it with the highly visceral toss-offs of Pisces Iscariot, however, and we have two sides of a fascinating coin, a human being reaching for (and occasionally living amongst) the stars.
As you might expect, the rarities unearthed for the special edition of an album that was actually itself a collection of B-sides and rare/unreleased tracks are pretty rough. Leading off with “Bye June”, a song originally included on the Lull EP, is a good move, offering Billy at his simplest and best, strumming his guitar and singing a hopeful little song. It is the counterpoint of “Soothe”, confident where “Soothe” is needy, propulsive while “Soothe” is static. It is a lovely song, and one of the best of a largely subpar bunch. Other highlights include some wonderful rock ‘n roll in covers of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” and Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ “Jackie Blue”, a lovely, acoustic jam session called “Crawl” culled from the Gish sessions, and fellow acoustic offerings like “Purr Snickety” (an old “Cherub Rock” vinyl B-side) and “Blissed” (no relation to fellow rarity “Blissed and Gone”, rather a song that would have fit right in with the acoustic offerings on the “Tonight, Tonight” single).
Less essential are the silly “French Movie Theme”, the overlong “Why Am I So Tired” (which is already widely available on Earphoria), and a messy, fuzzy live take of Lull treasure “Slunk” that just sounds like they’re pissed off that they have to be playing it. Given the lyrical conceit of the song, this may be intentional, but it’s a curious live inclusion on a collection of mostly studio tracks.
Most disappointing of all, however, is “Jesus Loves His Babies” (originally from the semi-official Mashed Potatoes “bootleg”), a so-so song marred by a telephone message from a vengeful “Jesus” who announces “I’M GOING TO PUNISH YOU, BILLY”. Maybe you find this sort of thing funny; here it just seems trite and obvious. I was charmed by the decision to leave in the household atmospherics in the form of the ringing telephone and answering machine (similar to the way you hear the siren just before the extended outro of “Starla”) until I realized it was completely intentional, a gag ending to a silly song. It’s perhaps the worst song in the Pumpkins oeuvre, an awfully dubious distinction when you start thinking about the band’s catalog.
All of that said, it is yet another Pumpkins rarity unearthed, another side of a band that most haven’t heard. To their credit, these Deluxe Edition releases have stayed away from the B-sides of the era that have gotten plenty of attention already, in favor of demos and rare tracks that only the true fanatics even knew existed. Buy the physical edition, you even get a DVD of an early basement performance and a cassette tape(!) with the six tracks from the band’s first demo.
To expect these songs to be perfect would be to expect too much. That the Smashing Pumpkins keep finding ways to release new material from this era is astounding, and that any of it is any good at all is actually kind of incredible. Pisces Iscariot is an essential album in the Pumpkins discography, as important as any of the “proper” studio efforts. The additional material offered by the deluxe edition may never come close to reaching the heights of the original 14 tracks, but a certain breed of fan is likely in for a very satisfying treat.
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