The Smashing Pumpkins Zeitgeist

[Reprise; 2007]

Styles: arena rock
Others: Billy Corgan, James Iha, D’Arcy, Melissa Auf Du Mar, Jimmy Chamberlin Complex

To understand the crushing appeal of The Smashing Pumpkins circa the early- to mid-’90s doesn’t take much investigation. You don’t have to see a concert DVD or watch a music video; all you have to do is play “Cherub Rock” in your living room cranked up to ludicrous volumes. The smooth, luscious bass, edges-sanded-off guitar, and locked-in drum rhythms are so perfectly packaged; back then, it was nearly impossible not to jump onboard when Siamese Dream followed Gish with 13 thunderous tracks that – despite their throbbing lifeforce – wouldn’t be completely out of place nestled into MTV playlists. The production got us listening and masked Billy Corgan’s average-at-best voice, while the songs – half-ballad, half-balls yin-yangers like “Soma” and “Today,” more jammy numbers like “Silverfuck” – demolished what little resistance we may have had. It didn’t hurt that Siamese Dream was expertly sequenced and admirably consistent from front-to-back, top-to-bottom; in its entirety, it eclipsed all commercially viable albums save Nevermind and Superunknown, depending on your tolerance for Corgan’s antics and, again, his then-production-veiled voice. And yes, it sold sorta well.

After the one-two punch of Gish and Siamese Dream, it seemed there was nowhere to go but down; double album Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, while deemed bloated-etc.-etc. by nitpicking critics, somehow managed to up the Pumpkins’ stake in rock ’n’ roll, because it combined the fierce sack-of-nickels thrust of older work with a new symphonic sensibility that hit more than it missed. Its second disc also blueprinted the sound of a million different tinker-happy indie-rock ensembles; once you got past a few hard rockers, you found a half-dozen odd, twinkling, percussion-light numbers that flipped the Pumpkins’ mystique on its ear and pointed to an exciting future.

Then the goddamn roof caved in. Follow-up Adore took the mellow-rock hell that was “1979” and stretched it out over an album of drum machines – drummer Jimmy Chamberlin had been axed at this point – lighter, almost new-age material, and, worst of all, a mix that urged Corgan’s voice to the front. From there, the Pumpkins couldn’t seem to get arrested in This Town. They released two Machina albums, and I’ll be a monkey’s studio technician if I can remember what either of them sound like, save that Corgan’s voice is mixed too high. And that they were both colossally inadequate considering the effortless zeal of Glory Days material.

In another era, that might have been the end, at least for a decade or two. But as the reunion monster churns and thrashes, no break-up is safe; this trend finds us looking at a new Smashing Pumpkins album square in the face, quite possibly before we’re ready for it. And let’s get this out of the way immediately: The fact that James Iha and D’Arcy don’t participate in the Nu Pumpkins isn’t a death knell. Although Iha made vital songwriting contributions to Siamese Dream and D’Arcy sang on a Gish track, they were dispensable; hell, they didn’t even play their parts on Siamese Dream (under the guise of being pinched for time, Corgan played all guitar and bass). So if you’re going to deride the Pumpkins reunion, don’t do it because it comes sans a few members; the core of Chamberlin and Corgan is intact and, with the right material/mindset, could have put together a facking bad-ass album.

If you’re going to rip on Zeitgeist, do it because it’s not very good. As has been proven in the Rock medium time and time again, money can’t buy class. It also can’t buy awareness. Taking an objective look at Corgan’s past successes and failures, it’s easy to see what has instigated his downfall: For one, his voice; for two, his lack of inspiration. Zeitgeist seems to have more inspiration behind it than the bloodless Adore/Machina abominations, but that voice... In the Siamese Dream days, it used to lie just beyond our grasp, elusive and brittle and beautiful; you could even hear a little Kevin Shields in the way Corgan’s voice melted into the fuzz. Ever since then, it’s slowly crept to the forefront, to the point where it now seems as though Corgan’s right next to me as I write this. I can’t lock horns with the guitar leads and increasingly rare tom-fills because Corgan’s too busy yammering in my ear. Worst of all, I don’t care a wit what he has to say. You won’t either.

And the mixing problems extend far beyond Corgan’s voice. The Band of a Hundred Murderous Guitars has turned into a modern-radio-rock band. The once fill-a-minute drumming of Chamberlin is uninspired where it used to be wildly imaginative. The lunging charge of classic Pumpkins is now a plodding mid-tempo stroll. There are, inevitably, several new (and expensive!) elements attempting to usher in a new era for the band – synths up the yazoo, you know the routine – but underneath the new tricks hides the same ol’ Corgan, corrugating his music, which once meant so much to so many, like one might crinkle one’s brow.

It doesn’t help that one of the music world’s most famously famous fame-seekers tries to put one over on his audience (I want to live where no one’s watching my way home). Corgan has also decided he cares about World Affairs now, and whether it’s calculated or not doesn’t matter; it doesn’t work. It would be easy to cut and paste a litany of quotes from songs like “For God and Country” – which comes complete with hilarious Tears For Fears synth stabs – and “United States,” letting the reader laugh at the pseudo-political inanity, but it’s almost too easy; since most didn’t tune in for Corgan’s lyrics in the first place, there’s no reason to go down that road. Oh hell, just one, from the former: It’s time to wake up.

Such a tragedy; Zeitgeist, unlike, say, a new Pixies, Police, NY Dolls, Stooges, or Jesus and Mary Chain album, actually had the chance to rekindle old glories. The Pumpkins faithful aren’t really that old, nor is Corgan too far gone – thin ice, but stay with me here – to contribute something worthwhile to the music community. But Zeitgeist is more calculated, by-the-numbers, and devoid of human feeling than a summer-movie marketing plan. Whether it results in a blockbuster is beside the point; it does nothing to prevent commercial music from inching closer and closer to complete triviality, possibly even providing an extra push. For a band that – whether unwittingly, whether for the right or wrong reasons – assisted in the upheaval of popular culture not so long ago, Zeitgeist represents an artistic flame flickering. There are indications within Zeitgeist that Corgan’s Smashing Pumpkins may one day create another serviceable album, but for all intents and purposes, it also proves that excitedly anticipating anything remotely resembling the Glory Days was at best a fool’s hope.

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