2004: “The truth of the matter is that guitarist James Iha broke up the Smashing Pumpkins. Not me, not drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, but James.”
2010: “I think James Iha should feel alone.”
2012: “James Iha I think is just a piece of shit. I think he’s one of the worst human beings I’ve ever met in my life.”
There is a two-pronged problem to trying to provide context to a James Iha solo album: One, he is inextricably linked to The Smashing Pumpkins (and, by proxy, to Billy Corgan, who is The Smashing Pumpkins now, and arguably has been since basically forever), and two, he doesn’t like to talk about it. He never did. In the 11 or so years since The Smashing Pumpkins as we knew them then broke up, he hasn’t said a damn thing about the breakup, or Corgan, or his time in the band. Even as Billy talked, and talked, and talked some more, offering up thoughts on Iha that were candid to the point of spiteful, Iha publically ignored the provocation, preferring instead to bounce around as a frequent collaborator and producer. He is never the face of the project so much as an important piece of the puzzle.
It seems typical, then, that his second solo album happened 14 years after his first one, and that it was released in Japan months before the United States ever got a glimpse. Even as a solo artist, it seems, he’d prefer to fly under the radar.
And yet, while his voice is a typically quiet presence on Look to the Sky, this James Iha sounds different. This James Iha is experimenting with his sound. This James Iha is inviting a small army of collaborators to fill out his songs. This James Iha has a voice that sounds exactly like it did the first time most of us heard it on Pisces Iscariot — on the beautiful and overlooked “Blew Away” — but whose confidence finally justifies branching out on his own.
After an opening track that immediately evokes such quiet moments as “Take Me Down” from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the album truly gets off the ground with “To Who Knows Where”, an upbeat, beautiful song that evokes the best of late-’90s indie-alternative nostalgia. “Gemini” adds some texture through distorted electric guitars, while “Till Next Tuesday” layers a lovely string part onto three different guitarists’ contributions and somehow ends up the purest, simplest pop song on the disc. Perhaps most surprising of all is “Appetite”, a strange little dirge that finds Iha indulging his inner Bowie, complete with longtime Bowie keyboardist Mike Garson along for the ride. One might never have suspected Iha was capable of these sorts of songs back in the Pumpkins era, and maybe that’s part of the point.
Iha does occasionally look so far into his own belly button as to threaten to implode, and it’s these tracks that come off the worst. Closer “A String of Words” is so still as to be nearly inert with lyrics to match, and “Summer Days” goes for ’80s nostalgia with its synths and straightforward beat, but really only comes off as a caricature of an era with a wishy-washy personality.
Despite these missteps, Look to the Sky is a fascinating little piece of work from a notoriously quiet artist. It is not a classic. It does not stand out in a crowded marketplace. It will not win album of the year awards. But it says its piece and moves on. In a way, that’s what Iha’s been doing ever since his time in the Pumpkins. We can read between the lines of his silence. He said his piece. He did what he did. Those days are over. The past never truly disappears, and it necessarily provides context to Look to the Sky, but James Iha is so much more than that one band, and this is an album that says as much.