Fate’s cruel taste for the irony of artistic success and personal failure, of abject misery arising from commercial triumph, found an easy target in Arizona guitarist/songwriter Doug Hopkins. On December 4, 1993, Hopkins shot himself into the rock’n’roll graveyard, an alcoholic depressive no longer able to watch the band he built — and had already been thrown out of — break big with two of his misleadingly chipper songs of pain and guilt.
The distinctive ingredient and tortured soul of a skilled but otherwise whitebread modern pop group taking cues from early R.E.M. (Byrdsy harmonies and chiming guitars), Tom Petty (Beatlish melodies and measured rock rhythms), the Smithereens (sizzling guitars and potent hooks) and Gram Parsons (that old faux-country twang), Hopkins brought the conviction and reality to make the Gin Blossoms something special. Unfortunately, that reality was a bleak, sardonic, self-lacerating desperation, which the Tempe quintet turned into deceptively upbeat pop. (Presumably with his approval: Hopkins was sacked after the album’s completion, replaced by guitarist Scott Johnson. Although he did not contribute to New Miserable Experience, Johnson was listed on it as a bandmember.)
The deeply conflicted New Miserable Experience (released twice by A&M with entirely different CD booklets and labels) is an energetic, tuneful and resonant pop album wrongly — to its benefit and detriment — tagged as “alternative.” When Hopkins isn’t kicking himself for being such a fuckup (“If you don’t expect too much from me/You might not be let down,” he offers in the hard-to-shake “Hey Jealousy”), he either lashes out (in “Found Out About You”) or shrugs it off: “Cheatin’,” a country honk co-written by guitarist Jesse Valenzuela, takes the low road with the claim that “You can’t call it cheatin’ cause she reminds me of you.” Meanwhile, Valenzuela’s own tunes offer lightweight disappointments (“Cajun Song”) and guarded optimism (“Mrs. Rita,” “Hands Are Tied”), while singer Robin Wilson keeps his hopes high (“Allison Road”). Taken as a finished artifact, the record is a tequila sunrise laced with battery acid; heard as the soap opera it must have been to make, Hopkins’ despondency cries out all alone, an alien wavelength channeled blithely by Wilson as if he didn’t quite comprehend the lyrics.
The locally released Dusted contains renditions — casually produced, carelessly sung but similarly arranged, if dispatched at hotfoot velocity — of four tunes (“Cajun Song,” “Hey Jealousy,” “Found Out About You” and “Lost Horizons,” another abject Hopkins drinking song) that found their way onto New Miserable Experience. (Two others — “Angels Tonight” and the pointedly personal “Keli Richards,” which contains a morbidly foreboding gun reference — joined “Mrs. Rita” and “Allison Road” on the five-track Up and Crumbling EP.) Otherwise, “I Can Sleep” is a nifty harmony demonstration, but the tunes that never made it off Dusted are mainly Gin Blossoms average, and earned their obscurity.
In the fall of ’95, “Til I Hear It From You,” a song composed with Marshall Crenshaw for the soundtrack of the loved-the-album-was-there-also-a-film? Empire Records, became a hit single. The song doesn’t appear on Congratulations I’m Sorry, which sounds enough like the Gin Blossoms (“Follow You Down,” “My Car,” “Not Only Numb”) to satisfy expectations while adding nothing new to what was once an artistically promising career. Marbled with oblique references to the past (in a nice touch, the long-time-coming album fades in slowly, as if returning to life in the studio) and careful not to be too happy, the record ably relaunched the Gin Blossoms as a reliable pop commodity, coloring joy with an abiding sense of loss. But the band had run its course, and broke up in early 1997. Valenzuela formed Low Watts, while Wilson and drummer Phillip Rhodes formed the Gas Giants. Johnson, who played for a time with Valenzuela, left to join the Peacemakers.