How the Gin Blossoms Made Melancholia Fun: New Miserable Experience Turns 30
Power-pop riffs, alcohol and Arizona sunshine are part of the package on a ‘90s classic
In 1992, Big Star-style riffs and Byrdsy vocal harmonies weren’t exactly central to the musical zeitgeist. But that didn’t stop the Gin Blossoms.
The Tempe-based band had already released a 1989 indie album and a ‘91 EP on A&M, so when New Miserable Experience was released, they probably weren’t shocked that their warm, twangy power pop sound didn’t immediately set the alt-rock world on fire. If anything, the ascendance of grunge made the Arizonans’ chiming, melodic tunes even less likely to connect in a major way.
But given enough time, the Gin Blossoms transcended trends. About a year later, “Hey Jealousy” became a sleeper hit and started the rock-star ball rolling for the band. When the smoke cleared, they ended up with four Top 40 singles off the album. But by the time New Miserable Experience was released, guitarist and main songwriter Doug Hopkins had been booted from the band. And before the album’s singles were finished climbing the charts, Hopkins had committed suicide.
VIDEO: Gin Blossoms “Hey Jealousy”
This lent an inescapably tragic irony to the Gin Blossoms’ success, but overcooked depictions of Hopkins as the tortured genius without whom the band would crumble are conspicuously absent of credibility. Half the album (and half of the hits) were written by guitarist Jesse Valenzuela and/or singer Robin Wilson, and the Gin Blossoms are still kicking three decades later.
One didn’t have to look further than the front line for a big part of the band’s appeal. Wilson was one of the finest rock vocalists of the era, with an understated style, an affecting quaver, and a knack for making those carefully constructed Gin Blossoms melodies sparkle. At the time, a lot of singers communicated angst by leaving their blood and guts all over the song. But when Wilson sang of betrayal on “Found Out About You,” uncertainty on “Until I Fall Away,” or dashed dreams on “Hey Jealousy,” he made you feel it without hammering you over the head, whether the words were his, Hopkins’ or Valenzuela’s.
None of this takes away Hopkins’ gifts, which were absolutely crucial to New Miserable Experience. He was a young man in a life-or-death struggle with addiction that he unfortunately lost in December 1993 at the age of 32. But he brought every element of that struggle to life in his songs. Hope, disappointment, confusion — it’s all there for the listening, whether it’s as literal as pleading for help in staying away from the coke party in the bathroom on “Hold Me Down” or as poetic as Lost Horizons: “Turn summer trees to bones and ice/Turn insect songs against the night/With words we build and words we break/I’m drunk drunk drunk in the gardens and the graves”
And it was the whole band’s way with visceral, timeless-sounding earworm riffs that brought NME across the finish line. The explosive bursts that power “Hey Jealousy” and “Lost Horizons” and the gentle tinabulations at the heart off “Until I Fall Away” and “Found Out About You” are equally powerful.
VIDEO: Gin Blossoms “Until I Fall Away”
Valenzuela was also deft at writing tunes that expanded the band’s range, like “Cajun Song,” framed by accordion from zydeco heavyweight C.J. Chenier; the garage-rocking raver “My Hands Are Tied”; and country-rocker “Cheatin’” with swoops and swells from Waylon Jennings’ pedal steel man Robby Turner.
The Gin Blossoms who came out of New Miserable Experience were a different band from the one that began it in a lot of ways, some good, some bad. But there was no downside to the music that emerged on one of the essential albums of the ‘90s.
- How Spandau Ballet Embraced Their Inner Soul Boys 40 Years Ago on True - March 16, 2023
- May You Never: John Martyn’s Solid Air Turns 50 - February 26, 2023
- Song of the Neuromancer: Remembering Yukihiro Takahashi - February 3, 2023