Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Smashing Pumpkins - Oceania

EMI, 2012
3.5 stars

It’s weird: I’ve been listening to The Smashing Pumpkins for almost seventeen years, ever since my brother added the sprawling double album that is Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness to his CD collection. In that time, I’ve pretty much gone along with the crowd, adoring the band’s revered songs and albums, spurning their indulgences and failures, and basically writing off Billy Corgan (and his ego) after it was clear that his glory days were behind him. In that sense, I guess I’ve never really become a true fan of the Pumpkins, even in all the time that I’ve been familiar with their music. That makes a certain amount of sense, since I spent my childhood far more enthralled by mainstream roots/country influenced music (The Wallflowers, Counting Crows) than by Corgan’s brand of dark alternative rock. I loved the hits, stuff like “1979,” “Disarm,” and “Tonight, Tonight,” songs with big sweep, great melodies, and fairly safe, accessible structures. I struggled more with the harder rock songs, and moments like “XYU” or “Tales of a Scorched Earth” were ones that I almost always skipped on my listens through Mellon Collie.

It’s not surprising that Corgan’s suffocating, totalitarian band-leading style led to the destruction of the original Smashing Pumpkins. It’s well known in Pumpkins lore that Corgan went back and re-recorded the guitar and bass parts on Siamese Dream, thinking – probably correctly – that he could play them better himself. The band went their separate ways shortly after the turn of the century, and only drummer Jimmy Chamberlain returned in 2006 when Corgan decided to make a “comeback” album. The result, Zeitgeist was arguably the worst album Corgan ever made, with or without the Pumpkins moniker: a dull, self-indulgent mess of a record, with metallic production and songs that, even at their best, just weren’t very good.

Chamberlain called it quits in 2009 and Corgan replaced him too: he kickstarted a series of conceptual EPs (called Teargarden by Kaleidyscope), and for the first time, he was the only original member left standing. But The Smashing Pumpkins, at there core, were always Corgan’s brainchild anyway, and for the eighth full-length album under the moniker, Oceania, he sounds largely re-energized and reborn. It doesn’t hurt that the band, made up of a trio of young guns, acquit themselves remarkably well, or that Corgan actually has the musical means to go after his more ambitious ideas (look no further than the sprawling, nine-minute title track, a gorgeous suite of a song that actually justifies its length, unlike the painful “United States” from the last record). All told, Oceania is the best Corgan has sounded since Mellon Collie, the first time in a decade where the use of The Smashing Pumpkins name doesn’t feel like an embarrassment to his legacy, and, perhaps most importantly, a set of songs worth hearing and replaying.

Make no mistake, Oceania is still far from perfect. It’s too bloated and overlong for its own good (at almost exactly one hour, the album will lose listeners at its less compelling moments), and Corgan often seems like he’s trying to recreate songs from previous albums – albeit, less successfully. But the fact that the frontman keeps his ego in check and dodges his hubristic indulgences throughout, even if the result comes across as relatively “safe,” could also be viewed as the key to the album’s ultimate victory. Judging from the journalistic response to the post-glory days Pumpkins output, from Adore to the Machina albums, and certainly to Zeitgeist, it almost seemed like listeners were yearning to hear Corgan to do things like he used to. He does his best to satisfy that desire here, conjuring up Siamese Dream’s fuzzy-guitar fury on opener “Quasar,” delivering a less theatrical re-write of “Disarm” on “The Celestials,” the acoustic-based first single, and bursting through the gates on “The Chimera” with a “the-90s-called-and-they-want-their-guitar-sound-back” style riff thrown in for good measure.

Musically, Oceania is fairly captivating throughout. Haunting synth-lines drive highlights like “Violet Rays,” “One Diamond, One Heart,” and album-closer “Wildflower,” while “Pale Horse” has a chiming romantic sweep that is nothing short of cinematic. The centerpiece, a liltingly gorgeous power ballad called “Pinwheels,” builds from yet-another synthesizer intro into an anthem, showcasing ringing guitar lines (including a stunning slide-guitar that serenades the arrangement) and a bed of strings that give the song an orchestral sensibility. In fact, the music is so stunning that Billy Corgan ends up being, rather ironically, the weakest player in the entire production. Corgan has never been a great singer, but his tortured delivery was perfect for connecting with listeners in the old days, and his unique nasally tone only ever added to the mood that the band’s music was going for. This time around though, something feels off: maybe it’s the production, which is too slick to lend the record a true throwback appeal; perhaps it’s the mix, which places the vocals at an awkward level throughout; or it could be the lyrics, which generally come across as insipid and uninspired. Regardless of the cause, Oceania lacks the emotional force that it needed to transcend what it is: a former rock star trying to sound vital again. Corgan makes big steps towards that goal, and it’s clear that he has the musical integrity, the arrangements, and especially the supporting talent that he needs get there, but for now, he’s still stuck in the waiting room.

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