Pisces Iscariot Turns 20
Every now and then, a band releases a collection of B-sides and outtakes and otherwise semi-available material that transcends the notion of an artist emptying the vaults to buy a bit of time between full-fledged albums, or simply trying to cash in a bit. (We’re going to be talking about a period of time here when that latter notion still seemed to make sense.) Every now and then, one of these releases arrives and, rather than becoming a curiosity to be pored over by the diehards, ascends to a position of, essentially, being perceived as another actual album in a band’s canon, whether due to the sheer strength of the material therein, or happenstance, or whatever. These aren’t entirely common in pop music, but they happen. There’s something like the Smiths’ Louder Than Bombs, a release that compiled a bunch of (amazing) songs American fans hadn’t yet seen on a proper Stateside release. When I was teenager, I definitely listened to Nirvana’s Incesticide more than I listened to Bleach. (“Aneurysm” might actually be my favorite Nirvana song.) These are the best kind of anomalies, the sort of collections that somehow wind up feeling just as essential to your experience of the band as their more famous, more visible classics. And, of course, for the Smashing Pumpkins there was Pisces Iscariot, released twenty years ago tomorrow.
Of the already anomalous nature of these odds-and-ends turned important touchstones in an artist’s catalog, Pisces Iscariot is amongst an even rarer category: the very early vault emptying that results in a shockingly strong collection of lesser or entirely unknown songs. So shockingly strong, in fact, that an album like Pisces Iscariot is often placed head and shoulders above almost anything Billy Corgan did after, save the following year’s monolithic Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. I like and/or love pretty much everything Corgan’s had a hand in aside from Zeitgeist and TheFutureEmbrace, and while I’d argue that Adore and MACHINA and Zwan are unfairly maligned and shouldn’t be as underrated (or, in the case of Zwan, as white-washed out of history) as they are, there’s a simple truth I have to concede about Pisces Iscariot. This was a major, prolific artist operating at the height of his powers; Pisces Iscariot was released just over fourteen months after Siamese Dream and just over a year before Mellon Collie would truly propel the band into superstar status. It’s a rarities collection sandwiched between masterpieces that, somehow, isn’t entirely overshadowed by that fact. Corgan was just cranking out material that strong and that consistent in those early Pumpkins years.
There’s a clear parallel elsewhere in the ’90s in Oasis’ The Masterplan. There was more self-loathing in Corgan’s work, but both he and Noel Gallagher were writing classic songs at a ridiculous clip. Both were self-aggrandizing musicians and ascendent rockstars on the brink of, in a sense, precipitous declines. (Similar to my sympathies for the lesser-beloved Pumpkins material, I appreciate a lot of the lesser-beloved Oasis output, but that’s an entirely different argument for a different day.) After Be Here Now and The Masterplan, Oasis’ hot streak had definitively ended, and their stock and critical standing had violently depleted. Pisces Iscariot falls in a slightly different position in the Pumpkins catalog — their biggest record was still on its way, and the backlash only began with the follow up to that, 1998’s Adore. Around that time, Corgan came off as a Gallagher-esque character — a still arrogant, potentially megalomaniacal architect at the center of things who had seemed to have lost his sense of things but hadn’t adjusted his attitude to reflect as such. (Later, things actually probably got worse for Corgan with all the disbanding/pseudo-reunion business with the Pumpkins and the way he spoke about the whole thing, while Gallagher has actually become much cooler as he’s aged into being a bit more self-aware without learning to filter what he says in interviews whatsoever.)
Nevertheless, the point stands: if you’re a fan that grew frustrated with the trajectory of the Pumpkins, Pisces Iscariot could become a symbol akin to The Masterplan. As some of the inspiration dried up or at least went awry, it was easy to look back at these collections as classic albums in their own right from the bands’ classic eras, and even to question if it should’ve gone down this way. Self-interest and hubris aside, putting something like Pisces Iscariot out at that point in the Smashing Pumpkins’ career was a generous move, but the sort of generosity where in hindsight you might take pause and say something like, “Oh, actually, maybe you should have held onto all this stuff for a bit and, I don’t know, spaced out the brilliance a bit more.” It isn’t hard to imagine a world in which the legacy of the Smashing Pumpkins was less damaged by virtue of the fact that there wasn’t this thing out there that wasn’t quite an album but at the same time was so much better than a lot of what had subsequently been offered as such.
Given, the notion of Pisces Iscariot being a fully fledged other album, I’d argue, is more rooted in the sheer quality of the material than the nature of the record itself. To stick with The Masterplan comparison for a moment: if you’re really familiar with Oasis, there’s plenty that tips you off to which songs are Definitely Maybe B-sides and which are Be Here Now B-sides, but save that live version of “I Am The Walrus” plopped in the middle, it still plays out convincingly as a lost, great Oasis album. Pisces Iscariot never struck me as an album in the same sense as those that preceded and followed it. It doesn’t have the same flow, or same overarching ambition and vision, of the other Pumpkins records. This music’s great, but it jumps between acoustic dreaminess and hard-edged rock somewhat spontaneously. That’s something that does happen on the official Pumpkins albums, but in a way that makes sense, that tells you you’re on a particular journey. Perhaps hindered by the inescapable knowledge that the birthdates of the songs on Pisces Iscariot span 1989-1994, here it mostly further underlines that it’s still a collection of leftovers, when it comes down to it.
But, damn, they’re good leftovers. And before the band went in every direction at once on Mellon Collie, it was a place to more fully flesh out parts of their personality that might’ve been glimpsed on Gish or Siamese Dream, but not allowed to bloom entirely. Sure, there’d been mellow and/or acoustic songs on both Gish and Siamese Dream, but think of the swell and grandeur of “Disarm” or the queasier spaciness of “Suffer” vs. the lightly psychedelic, more small-scale “Obscured” on Pisces Iscariot. Consider the bare, heartfelt cover of “Landslide” that Corgan offers up. There’s a gentle spaciness allowed to come to the fore here in a way that never exactly happened on the preceding two albums, even with the caustic rock songs that still populate the rest of Pisces Iscariot. Often the most intriguing and affecting parts of the collection come in these moments, because they show you just how different the story could have gone up until that point. Many of the rockers on Pisces Iscariot sound more like Gish, but many date from Siamese Dream, and the fact that these didn’t make the cut underlines just how specific and momentous the vision was for that album. On the other hand, there’s also the swirling epic “Starla,” an outtake from Gish that sounds like a blueprint for the swirling epics on Siamese Dream, stuff like “Soma.” (And the ones on Mellon Collie, for that matter.) It is, simply, an incredible song, and it shows you the exact magnitude of Corgan’s ambition, and just how far back that went.
That’s perhaps what’s rarest about Pisces Iscariot. Most B-side collections are worthwhile for how they expose the road untraveled, the directions and ideas a band toyed with before ultimately abandoning or otherwise working them into a some other sort of mix. The material on Pisces Iscariot is still definitely the Pumpkins, but it’s not quite as singular or totemic a vision as that which made it onto Siamese Dream, where these various strains were folded into a larger blend of psychedelia and metal and prog and shoegaze. But where Pisces Iscariot has that interesting quality of exposing the counter-narratives, there’s also that fact that it ascended to the level of being in the band’s main narrative, grasped onto as one other great album in the early Smashing Pumpkins mold before Corgan’s interests spiraled out into all sorts of other places. Outside of all of that, though, revisiting and re-listening to Pisces Iscariot over and over exposes one simple fact: there are songs here that are as gorgeous and unassailable as those that did make Gish and Siamese Dream. Even if Pisces Iscariot isn’t as stratospherically a great record as Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie, it was just as worthy a contribution to ’90s music, just as worthy a presence in the Smashing Pumpkins catalog.