I’ve been following The Smashing Pumpkins, or perhaps alternately the trials and tribulations of Billy Corgan, for over twenty years. The great thing about that statement is that the music itself has kept me feeling young despite that passage of time.
It’s difficult to speak about the music solely on the terms of the music itself and separate out the mercurial musician who’s pulling all the strings. The fan relationship with Billy Corgan and Co./The Smashing Pumpkins is a difficult road to walk. I mean, we’re constantly being lied to. “Jimmy’s out. He’s not coming back.” (1996 after the overdose of drummer Jimmy Chamberlin.) ”The Pumpkins are over.” (2000, after the release and subsequent touring behind Machina.) “We’re releasing 44 tracks, completely downloadable for free to our fans in a project called Teargarden By Kaleidyscope.” (2009)
Now here comes Oceania, The Smashing Pumpkins’ seventh album, billed as an album within the grand scheme of the Teargarden project – the thirteen tracks here are not free, but rather being commercially packaged at both physical and digital retail by EMI, a company Corgan also, at one time, said he would never work with again. The grand hope? That fans of the past catalog, as well as fans of rock in general, will overlook the pomposity of previous claims by Corgan, and simply judge the music on the terms of the music itself. A bold gamble, but it’s the same gamble Corgan has been taking for over twenty years.
For me, it always seems to pay off. It certainly does with this album, an entirely fresh new collection of tunes serviced better by the “album format.” While I could probably be described as a “super fan,” having collected every EP, single, side project, b-side and in my younger days a slew of bootlegged concerts, I recognize the difference between the rock album and the rock single or individual one-off tracks. I don’t completely get the individual tracks in the TBK (Teargarden) series that have preceded this album. They are more scattershot or hit-and-miss, which very easily could be a result of releasing a track at a time. There is a cohesiveness to the Oceania tracks I both appreciate and buy in to. Enough waxing on the pretense though – let’s talk about the album, shall we?
“Quasar” leads off this new salvo of tunes and the instant the guitars come in, you’re brought to Siamese Dream era Pumpkins. Let’s face it, Mike Byrne (The Pumpkins fifth drummer), is no Jimmy Chamberlin – and no one else ever could be. That aside, spending two years with Corgan – day in and day out – he’s mastered the “Pumpkins style,” and keeps the backbeat and bombast in controlled timing with Corgan’s guitar and vocal howl. It’s a rollicking true-to-form Pumpkins track that rattles on for five minutes with Corgan’s signature solos closing out the track. ”Panopticon” is sort of that quintessential second track – in the way that “Cherub Rock” blended into “Quiet”, or how “Doomsday Clock” blended into “7 Shades of Black.”
In referencing tracks off of Zeitgeist (2007) above, it’s important to note the stylistic shift between albums five years apart. That album was made as the ultimate “F-U” to any naysayers who thought that Corgan could not return to form after Mellon Collie. It was “I’m getting Jimmy and we’re going to blast all of you out of the water,” and it was loud, abrasive and still had those ballads and arena rock-ready choruses. It was aided by production from the legendary Roy Thomas Baker (Queen, Bowie). This album, by comparison, has more confidence. Instead of an angry “I don’t give a shit” attitude that (in hindsight) hangs over the last effort, it’s been replaced with a calmer (though no less intriguing or intense) version of the songwriter and his craft.
“The Celestials” is a gorgeous number that opens up acoustically, before punching at the stars in “Stand Inside Your Love” fashion once the guitars are plugged in and take hold. Both “Violet Rays” and the (as one would expect) nine-plus-minute title track mine heavily from that 1999-2000 era of the Pumpkins sound. “My Love is Winter” has been kicking around in live circles for the better part of the past couple years and is finally committed to tape here. While it has both a prog feel to the keys used on the track as well as that 70′s almost Zwan-like guitar effect, the overall track seems fairly stock for a Pumpkins tune. ”One Diamond, One Heart” again flirts with a keyboard-based backdrop. While nowhere near as experimental as any of the electronica used on 1998′s Adore, it’s a pleasant, almost whimsical track. If one were to reference a period this track most closely fits in with, it would be a safe bet to say this track could have been featured on Corgan’s 2005 solo album, TheFutureEMBRACE. ”Pinwheels” has also found its way into the live shows more recently as they’ve honed it for a studio recording. For whatever reason, this track reminds me of “Muzzle”, off of Mellon Collie. The track maintains its acoustic backbone throughout, despite the instrumental the track begins with.
“Oceania” is pure prog and reminds of “Blue Skies Bring Tears” in the synth fills and guitar tones used for the vast majority of the track. However, there is a nifty one minute, ten second acoustic section to this track that gives things a bit more depth. The drum fills after this section though – a tribal repetition – seem like a carbon copy of the work Jimmy rolled out on “United States”. While the histrionics at the back-end of the track are moneymakers for hardcore fans, one wonders if this is again strictly a stock move on Corgan’s part. ”Pale Horse” reminds most closely of Gish and Adore and some of that darker, gothic sheen, utilizing some different percussion (kettle drum) and pianos. In some ways, this track feels like an unfinished thought.
“The Chimera” could have been a direct rip from the Zwan era. Big wall of sound guitars and a bouncing track that slows for no one and picks up the pace after “Pale Horse” slowed things down. It’s just one of those tracks you just wanna rock out to in the summer or hook up the old Guitar Hero and rock along with. “Glissandra” is similarly uptempo utilizing a looping guitar line amidst perhaps the most pronounced bass line on the entire album. Corgan offers up the lyric “I used to know/what a wish was for.”
The album closes with not one, but two great end of album tracks. ”Inkless” is a driving track that lives and dies by Byrne’s play on a stuttered beat through the verses and Corgan’s guitars. I’m sorry but I fail to see what Jeff Schroeder’s contribution to this album has been. Every guitar line on the album seems 100% Billy – whether it’s a riff or a solo. I’d love to know what Schroeder added besides playing the parts he was instructed to play. Save for some backing vocals and the bass line on “Glissandra” I’m also more than a bit skeptical of Nicole Florentino’s contribution’s as well. The studio Sven Gali seems to be living up to his name, despite the new cast that surround him.
The album closes with the beautiful “Wildflower”, a simple atmosphere-driven track augmented with sparse, plucked strings before opening up another beautiful slice of guitar feedback, then closing with one more chorus and fading off unto the ether.
Once you make peace with the fact that the music is completely Billy Corgan – even under the guise of The Smashing Pumpkins – you’ll find an appreciation for the fact that the dude just writes great tunes. In the grand scheme of the Smashing Pumpkins discography, I would probably put this album third or fourth in the depth chart behind Siamese Dream and Adore. Obviously, the benefit of time will truly root where the album stands, but it’s a solid, mature collection of tunes that have the classic sound firmly interwoven into the entire framework of the album.
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