Happy 25th Anniversary to Gin Blossoms’ New Miserable Experience, originally released August 4, 1992.
The title of the Gin Blossoms’ proper major label debut for A&M Records might have been prophetic, receiving a less-than-enthusiastic response from both fans and critics upon its initial release. Guitarist and songwriter Doug Hopkins was fired from the band because of excessive alcohol use during the album’s recording sessions in early 1992—an ongoing personal affliction that was documented in the lyrics of the set’s breakthrough single “Hey Jealousy,” which Hopkins had penned three years earlier. Unable to escape the weight of his addiction and resulting depression, Hopkins died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in December 1993, just as New Miserable Experience started to gain chart traction. "Doug's death was the most difficult thing any of us went through," lead singer Robin Wilson admitted during a Music Aficionado interview. "There wasn't a single thing about it that wasn't ugly.”
New Miserable Experience arrived five years after the Gin Blossoms got their start in 1987 in Tempe, Arizona, with the original lineup that included Hopkins, bassist Bill Leen, lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Jesse Valenzuela, rhythm guitarist Richard Talyor, and drummer Chris McCann. Wilson initially joined the band in 1988 as a guitarist, but soon traded front man responsibilities with Valenzuela and has remained in that role ever since. Leen and Valenzuela are the band’s only remaining founding members. They independently released their first studio album Dusted in a limited run on vinyl and cassette only through San Jacinto Records in 1989. Four of the album’s tracks— “Hey Jealously”, “Found Out About You”, “Cajun Song”, and “Lost Horizons”—were re-recorded three years later during the sessions for New Miserable Experience.
After signing with A&M Records in 1991, the band issued Up and Crumbling, a biographically-titled five-song EP that was essentially a misfired attempt at recording their follow-up to Dusted. Tracks “Alison Road” and “Mrs. Rita” made their first appearances on the EP and were later added to New Miserable Experience’s track list. Up and Crumbling was a financially devastating affair for the Blossoms, and a swirl of creative and personal issues surrounding the band members didn’t exactly help to boost A&M’s confidence in their viability. "We were a fragile mess. We were all just treading water trying to make the record. We knew this was our last chance," Wilson explained to Rolling Stone earlier this year. "It was an intense experience on every level."
They eventually regrouped with engineer and producer John Hampton (who had engineered and mixed The Replacements’ 1987 album, Pleased to Meet Me) at Memphis’ Ardent Studios in February the following year. Despite the continued tension between the band and Hopkins, in particular, the sessions pushed on and resulted in what Wilson believes was some of their best work to date. “I think we knew we had done something special,” he affirmed to Rock Cellar Magazine. “We had not only captured the essence of the band but we had also made a really good record. But things were so uncertain at the time. We had no idea whether anyone would ever hear it because we were on the verge of being dropped.”
Working with Hampton in the same studio that had previously turned out projects by R.E.M. and Big Star—two of the Blossoms’ major musical influences—provided much needed inspiration in the thick of those difficult days. “It wasn’t until that decision was made [to work with Hampton] and we actually got to Memphis that we realized the depth of the connection to Big Star and that we were basically in the studio that was more of less built for them. We were using the same amplifiers. Jody Stephens, the drummer for Big Star, managed the studio. We were suddenly a part of that world and it made it that much more meaningful. I always turn back to this; we loved The Replacements and they sang about Alex Chilton and we became fans of Big Star and then just a few years later there we were in the same room with the same amplifiers and the same people and went and made a classic record with all of that stuff going on. It was really special.”
When New Miserable Experience finally hit stores five months later, the payback was underwhelming. The first two singles, “Lost Horizons” and “Mrs. Rita,” failed to generate much in the way of radio buzz or album sales. It wasn’t until June of the following year when “Hey Jealousy” was released as the set’s third single that the album began to gain momentum. Top 40 radio and MTV responded, and soon it was spinning in regular rotation, eventually landing at #25 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, and #4 on the magazine’s Mainstream Rock Tracks tally.
The irony of its summery cadence and Wilson’s ultra-bright lead vocal as vessels for Hopkins’ lyrics that contend with the dark tangles of his illness is intriguing. His fingerprints on New Miserable Experience are inescapable, certainly making it difficult for the band’s surviving members to crawl out from underneath his shadow from both an emotional and creative perspective. The somber verses of “Lost Horizons” (“drink enough of anything / to make this world look new again / drunk, drunk, drunk in the gardens and the graves”) and the chorus of “Pieces of the Night” (“what do you remember if at all / only pieces of the night”) are tough to swallow in context. But from a purely consumable standpoint, that interplay between surface-level positivity and soul-deep struggle makes New Miserable Experience a beautifully relatable pop music opus.
Much of New Miserable Experience maintains a similar tempo, but the irresistibly singable melodies and spry guitars sweep you away before you stop to question if the tracks might sound a little too consistent. “Until I Fall Away” and “29” are welcome changes of pace, with Wilson dampening his usually effervescent lead to a matte glow. “Found Out About You” and “Allison Road” extended the album’s series of single releases well into the following year, continuing where the breezy radio-ready appeal of “Hey Jealousy” left off. Considering the band’s dismal commercial prospects less than a year earlier, the fact that they amassed five consecutive Billboard chart singles in a matter of months is rather remarkable. By January 1994, New Miserable Experience was certified platinum; to date, the album has sold over four million copies.
With the album’s ascent also came the inevitable sea change for the Blossoms’ members and their newfound success. “It was very gratifying to be successful,” Wilson reflected in Rock Cellar Magazine. “I was never really interested in fame as much as I was success. That was always a motivating factor for me so to succeed was extremely gratifying. To look down into the audience at a town you’ve never been to before and there are people singing along with a song you wrote in your bedroom is a really cool experience to have. Then the toughest thing about it was the work itself, the schedule, the relentless touring and just being away from home and loving out of van and eating crappy food for months and months on end. It was exhausting and it could really drain your spirit. There were so many moments before the record took off where it was just like, ‘what the hell are we doin’?’”
New Miserable Experience would set the scene for the band’s 1995 hit “Til I Hear It From You,” which was featured on the soundtrack of the 1995 cult classic Empire Records. Their next studio album, Congratulations…I’m Sorry, arrived in February 1996. Despite both the album and its first single “Follow You Down” landing in the top ten, the Blossoms disbanded in 1997. "We weren't getting along," Wilson told Music Aficionado, "and I was under the delusion that I could be in a band that did things differently."
After diverting to side projects and solo work, the band would return to form in 2002. Two studio albums, Major Lodge Victory (2006) and No Chocolate Cake (2010), would be added to their catalog. Even though their studio work has been sporadic, the Blossoms have continued to tour regularly while their string of hits remain in the public consciousness thanks to an impressive alt-rock and pop radio shelf life. The band recently finished recording a new album with producers Don Dixon and Mitch Easter (who were at the helm for R.E.M.’s early projects Murmur and Reckoning), hoping to capitalize on the firm musical foundation they laid with New Miserable Experience. "Somehow we never really lost our credibility," Wilson recently told Billboard. "I hear people talk about other groups from my generation and it's not always kind. I feel like we managed to survive without anybody's scorn."