# A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Smashing Pumpkins - Smashing Pumpkins

  by Jeff Thiessen

published: 4 / 7 / 2012

Smashing Pumpkins - Smashing Pumpkins


Jeff Thiessen in 'This Metal Sky' looks back on the Smashing Pumpkins' erratic career, and reflects on why their latest record, 'Oceania', is their greatest moment to date

I never really did give up on Billy Corgan. Just didn’t seem wise. I never got the sense that the smart money was aligned with counting him out. He may not be on Lou Reed’s level when it comes to outright song-writing talents, but, take it from me, don’t bet against someone with the sheer iron will Billy possesses. It might take a while, but if you continue to slam the ‘pear-shaped boy’(a nickname his roadies called him behind his back during the band’s tours in the nineties), at some point he’ll probably make you look fairly stupid for doing so. This is what ‘Oceania’ represents, the point where Corgan has finally accepted his limitations and doesn’t spend any amount of time trying to convince us he doesn’t actually have any. This is a relative first for the group. There is much greatness to be found on every single Pumpkins album, but until ‘Oceania’ it’s never sustained. ‘Siamese Dream’ survived/thrived on the strength of its singles, but was bogged down by the long-windedness that filled up the remaining parts of the album. ‘Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’had a lot of genuinely terrific moments (‘Tonight, Tonight’, ‘Love’, and the unapologetically arty ‘Porcelina of the Vast Oceans’ were three entries that easily stand among the best in the Pumpkins catalogue), but lyrically Billy was a snivelling little brat over the course of the double-album. He really was. It’s actually really similar to NIN’s ‘Fragile’ double release. Both are just absurdly impressive from a sonic angle, but problems start to arise when you actually start listening to what each singer is saying. For this reason I could never really champion ‘Melon Collie’ as a masterpiece in any sense of the term. ‘Adore’ took a giant step forward lyrically, clearly as a result of his mother’s death prior to making it. Gone is the sad little baby that can’t understand why more people can’t invest anything in his vague emotional crises, and, in its place, was a more reflective, accountable version of Corgan. Still the actual music of ‘Adore’ couldn’t hang with the lyrical maturation, and, like the previous releases, had several standouts (‘To Sheila’, and the epic ‘For Martha’, possibly the most emotional poignant track Billy has ever written), but surrounded by a lot of material that seemed sub-par in regards to the aural assault we all know he’s capable of. Next was the’ Machina I/Machina II’ releases, and, until ‘Oceania’, these represented the zenith of the Pumpkins catalogue. ‘Machina I’ was a fierce rock n’ roll album, a true channeling of nearly every good impulse Corgan has and none of his bad ones, no small feat considering how many of the latter he possesses. Having said that, I just listened to ‘Machina I’ through in its entirety yesterday, and it came off as cold, almost clinical for the vast majority of the album. Impressive from start to finish, I ended up taking off my headphones without any real guttural reaction to the 73 minutes of music that I had just ingested. I’m aware this might not be a tangible flaw, but, considering the lukewarm public embrace to the record, I feel it’s a worthy observation to include. ‘Machina II’ saw the band reaching a creative peak, and again it’s tough to find anything discernibly wrong with the effort, but it’s even more difficult to connect the dots on a personal, relatable level on the part of the listener. Then they broke up, only to reform seven years later to release ‘Zeitgeis’t, and at this point only Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlain remained as the original members, but I never understood why people were sweating the loss of the other two members so much. Were they actually under the impression Iha and Wretzky were anything more than marginal session players? Cmon. Again to reference Nine Inch Nails, the Pumpkins begin and end with Corgan, just like NIN does with Reznor. To me their departure was a total moot point. ‘Zeitgeist’ wasn’t as bad as many said, but it certainly wasn’t a good record, just falling flat and generally sounding confused as to what the fuck it was trying to accomplish. Having said that, in my opinion, it does include the most driving, violent track I’ve ever heard the Pumpkins release with ‘United States’. Clocking in at almost ten minutes, this song just destroys everything in its path, and personally it’s my favourite song the group has ever laid to record. Must be heard to be believed. Unfortunately the rest of ‘Zeitgeist’ comes nowhere close to the power of ‘United States’, and for the last five years I didn’t know what to make of the band. Nobody really did. I mean they put out this sprawling, sort of mess of an album, lost one of the best drummer’s in music (Chamberlain quit following the release of ‘Zeitgeist’), and then Corgan kept putting out incredibly mediocre online tracks under some massive ‘Teargarden by Kaleidyscope’ project that nobody really gave a shit about. It was at this point that everyone I talked to began to write off the group, but that just never seemed like a prudent move to me. This basically brings us to the present, and forgive me for the retrospective approach I took for this article, but I feel like I had to. It’s important, because for some god-forsaken reason, we have come to expect a ton from Corgan, but nobody can really explain why. This is why ‘Oceania’ works on so many levels. He has listened to, absorbed, and discarded just the right amount of public feedback, and finally we have a Pumpkins album both us and Corgan deserve. Based on even a crude analysis of the Pumpkins’ past efforts, we can conclude there seems to be three main key aspects of what actually would contribute to a seminal Pumpkins record. There has to be epic bombast, but it must be restrained and not entertained on any unmitigated level. This is engrained into Billy’s system, so we know we’ll get it, and that’s cool, but the problems arise when he embraces it too righteously. Be sincere, but not to the point of being embarrassingly sincere, as found on so many parts of ‘Melon Collie’. And finally, Billy, stop trying so hard. We just want your best, not anything past that. Prior to ‘Oceania’, every Pumpkins release contained at least one of these problematic aspects. Their most recent offering is free of all of them, and in its place is a beautifully simple, yet still emotionally complex offering. There are still guitars found on the album, but it should be noted they aren’t used as a device of annihilation as seen on’ Zeitgeist’ and the ‘Machinas’, instead used as a tool of restrained power only to be used to warp the extraordinary dream into new, and interesting places, and not to smash it into oblivion like the Pumpkins camp has us accustomed to. I suppose now is as good a time as any to acknowledge that the Smashing Pumpkins are a full band again, and, while the new members do more than keep up, I don’t feel their contributions merit anything more than a passing mention, so that’s all I’ll say on that topic. ‘Oceania’ is a spacey, dreamy, slowed-down effort that totally caters to Corgan’s strengths while never being pummelled by them. It roars when it has to, but for the most part, this is a wonderfully restrained effort that still manages to arrive tranquilly into our hearts on its own terms. The amazing thing about ‘Oceania’ is how initially deceiving it seems to be upon initial listens. The music seems like it should be an album that will survive or die based on the listener’s amount of patience, but honestly that isn’t the case. The songs come and go at their own pace, but, because Corgan’s songwriting talents have evolved to a truly remarkable point, you never have to work to like this music. It’s lovable, easily, throughout the whole record. The pear-shaped jerk we’ve come to so readily detest is officially a thing of the past finally. ‘Oceania’ presents us with a simplified version of Corgan, one who is beat down, humbled, but not defeated, and more than ever prepared/excited to present us with a version of himself that exists in a streamlined prism of wants, needs, loss, and not filtered through anything that isn’t directly proportionate to those core elements of the human condition. Perhaps the key element of ‘Oceania’ is Corgan allowing us to see him as someone who isn’t that far removed from the people who actually buy his music. This is a guy who used to wear a space priest costume for concerts. This was no fashion statement, whether it came from a place of pomposity or just outright detachment from the rest of the human species, we’ll never really know, but the point is there was an inherent disconnect from the literal manifestation of Billy Corgan and the one we allow into our homes and lives. This was what made him such cannon fodder; people just assumed this was an intentional path he chose. Whether it was intentional or not, everybody lost, nobody won, and that’s the important thing to remember. The blame game is easy and convenient but it ultimately gets us to the same place we started at. ‘Oceania’ works like this: there are several standouts, and a few that don’t quite stand up with highlights, but they bridge the gap extremely effectively. The meat of the album seems to stand in the middle portion. I haven’t heard a stronger stretch of music on any album in a couple of years, at least. It starts with ‘The Celestials’, which is crafted as sort of a quasi-introspective and brutally honest look at Corgan’s habitual/chronic self-analysis that will always cripple even his best days. Far more powerful than ‘Disarm’, without a doubt. ‘Pinwheels’ isn’t better, but it’s close. Corgan allows the frenzied synths to breathe, materialize, until dissolving into an acoustic offering of guilt and optimism, offering what might be seen as the crowning moment of the album when he urgently hollers “You don’t deserve me/But I deserve you.”. It’s about time Billy, we’re owed honesty, now you’re giving it to us in spades. We can’t blame you for the answers if we’ve spent the last fifteen years asking you the questions. The title track makes me happy. It should make any Pumpkins fan happy. We’ve seen this before, the epic blown-up Corgan tune that somehow seems to come to come to at least four different heroic conclusions before the song actually comes to an end. Here though we don’t have to suffer though silly mediations on love and death for nine godless minutes like he made us endure with ‘Silverfuck’ (even though Chamberlain’s drumming remains an astounding force of nature on that track). Instead, it’s allowed to grow and organically develop into something that indulges Corgan’s grandiloquent impulses while not letting them overpower everything else in the track. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a long, winding song. There is, however, something intrinsically problematic when one decides to calculatedly craft one. The title track on ‘Ocenaia’ isn’t an immaculately put-together opus like ‘Stairway to Heaven’, but that’s actually part of its charm. It rises and falls in strict accordance with its own strengths and flaws, and the fact this vulnerable example of human error/triumph is allowed to exist on a Smashing Pumpkins album is probably the primo example of why ‘Oceania’ stands so far apart from the rest of anything else in their discography. ‘Pale Horse’ follows the title track, and should strike the listener as one of the most tender offerings the Pumpkins have ever claimed as their own. Here we see a perfect symbiosis of technology and raw instrumentation, something Corgan had flirted with, but never fully achieved prior to this album. He’s a student of music and progress, so one should expect a healthy indulgence of computerized elements in Pumpkins music. But he’s also a loyal devotee of rock history, so he’ll never completely forsake a lot of conventional arrangements. Here we finally see him merge the two in a happy union. ‘Oceania’ represents the first Smashing Pumpkins album that leaves me feeling warm and happy after I take off my headphones, and I have no doubt this is a direct result of Corgan finally ceasing battle with the internal voices in his head imploring him for more, and instead coming to terms with the sound churning inside his heart. This article went on a bit long. I know this. But goddamnit, there was no way I could really evaluate ‘Oceana’ from a realistic place if I wasn’t allowed to chronicle his path that got us here. I mean Corgan is in a weird place, and always has been. We evaluate everything he does in relation to what we wanted from past offerings. It’s not fair to him, or us. But be clear on one thing: ‘Oceania’ only exists because of his partial failures/successes on past efforts. It’s a beautiful album. I say that without hesitation or fear of contradiction. It’s not perfect, but it’s not far off either, mainly because it impeccably reflects Corgan’s various imperfections as a human being, ones that are perpetually exposed as a result of his biggest hurdle: a constant pursuit for immortality into our hearts. That may never really happen. And we’ll never really know if he made ‘Oceania’ for us, or for him. But at this point nobody loses, everybody wins.

Visitor Comments:-
571 Posted By: Myshkin, London on 19 Jul 2012
Surely Corgan should leave and the band carry on just like the Sugababes?

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