Billy Corgan’s Zeitgeist

10 07 2007

by mr. travis

zeitgeist

When last the world saw the Smashing Pumpkins, the once great band had collapsed under the weight of front man Billy Corgan’s own ego, ending with a whine instead of a bang as Corgan lamented the death of his band to the Britney Spears’ of the world, releasing a half baked album of leftovers entitled Machina II: The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music for free over the internet. Such a move was unheard of in 2000, just as file sharing had begun its supposed destruction of the music industry with the birth of Napster, Corgan, one of the bigger personalities left from the grunge era, threw in with the enemy, giving a final “fuck you” to his label and his band mates, endearing himself to what remained of the Pumpkins’ fan base. He would eventually resurface with drummer Jimmy Chamberlain in the short lived “super group” Zwan before going down an ill fated solo venture, while guitarist James Iha soldiered on with his own solo work and in Maynard James Keenan’s A Perfect Circle as well as a guest starring stint on the final Whiskeytown record. Bassist D’arcy Wretzky on the other hand languished in her own cocaine driven hell after being booted from the band during the Machina sessions (though she has cleaned up and is now focused on raising horses on a farm in Michigan), replaced by ex-Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur, who hasn’t really done anything since then.

Interestingly, of the bands that started and thrived during the grunge era (and for the sake of argument, let’s place the grunge era from 1989 with the release of Nirvana’s Bleach to 1995 when the triple threat of Soundgarden breaking up, R.E.M.’s grunge parody Monster being released, and Weezer’s Blue Album rising up the charts, eerily signaling the early arrival of what would become emo), the Smashing Pumpkins are one of the few that still hold up due to the timeless production of their first three records (Gish, Siamese Dream, and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness respectively), which should come as no surprise considering that Billy Corgan knows his music history and understands the album as an art form. One listen to the brilliant Mellon Collie (and yes, listen to it again and say it’s not brilliant. No other album from that era dared to be as bombastic and no other album actually pulled it off) tells you all you need to know about Corgan, both as a musician and an artist of production technique. The two hour plus album ebbs and flows with each song, everything segueing into each other to form one piece of music, yet each tune has its own identity. Only someone with the ego of Corgan could have done what he did and he pulled it off masterfully. It is unfortunate then, that Mellon Collie was the last great album the Pumpkins released, with Corgan overreaching his grasp several times before calling it quits.

It is this same ego that would lead him to believe that we actually think this new Smashing Pumpkins album is the same band from ten years ago. Technically it may be, it is well known that Siamese Dream was recorded by only Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlain, with rumors swirling that this was the way things went throughout the Pumpkins career. With Iha and Wretzky being replaced by a new male/female rhythm section (Jeff Schroeder and Ginger Reyes on guitar and bass respectively), this gives even more credence to such a thought. But, without even one of the originals in the fold it’s enough to give one pause, especially considering that Corgan only chose to revive the Pumpkins the moniker after his solo album crashed and burned.

So, it comes as a surprise then that the beginning of the new Smashing Pumpkins album Zeitgeist is one of the best tunes they’ve done, on par with their early work. Opening with a drum solo that is a bit too similar to the one that opened their debut album Gish (on “I am One”), the song “Doomsday Clock” quickly turns into a Sabbath like rush with Corgan spouting venom about “apocalyptic screams” while lamenting about how it’s “lonely at the top/these lonely days/will they ever stop?” It’s about as confessional as this album gets, but it says all we need to know about Corgan’s mindset. The following song “7 Shades of Black” is even better, though, again it borrows from a previous Pumpkins song, this one being “The End is the Beginning is the End” from the Batman and Robin soundtrack. The dual attack of these songs is the most aggressive Corgan has ever been, sounding rejuvenated after his dabbles in indie rock and electronica. Unfortunately, the momentum is killed with his decision for the next song, “Bleeding the Orchid”.

Corgan, being the master planner that he is, makes the fatal mistake of killing the forward motion of the album with a song that is so the opposite of the previous two that it leaves you cold. “Bleeding the Orchid” isn’t a bad song, it’s just misplaced. The first single, “Tarantula” would have been the perfect capper to the first three songs, by then the listener would have been ready for something a bit slower. Instead, the dirge of “Orchid” leaves you disjointed and immediately takes you away from the listener. It doesn’t help that the next tune “That’s the Way (My Love Is)” sounds like a leftover from the Zwan days.

“Tarantula” is a great song, but it feels like it’s in the middle of a vast desert with its position on the record, it’s quickness and momentum left to waste beside mediocre songs that are little more than weak bridges to the next rush. The brilliant architect behind Mellon Collie appears to have lost his step.

The rest of the album is filled with political rhetoric that is a far cry from the days of “the killer in me is the killer in you.” The ten minute epic, “United States” is especially indicative of the direction the album takes. And as far as ten minute epics go, this one is pretty great, until Corgan lets out a fey yell around the 7 minute mark that borders self parody. But, such is the problem with Zeitgeist, it feels like a series of false starts that fail to bring together the momentum that builds sporadically throughout. This isn’t to say that the album is terrible. Two items that stand out in particular are the drumming of Jimmy Chamberlain and the production. Chamberlain is one of the best drummers of the modern era and it shows again in this record as he is often the best part of some of the songs. This should come as no surprise to anyone that has been paying attention, Chamberlain plays as if he’s in a jazz band, holding the band together even when it seems as if it’s about to careen off the rails. As for the production, like the first three Pumpkins albums, the production is timeless, feeling as if it would be at home in the 70’s, the 90’s, or today. And, as was said earlier there are bright spots throughout, it just never comes together as a cohesive record, which is odd considering that even the worst Pumpkins records (Adore and Machina: The Machine of Gods) were beautifully made when it came to their album structure.

Another source of contention within the release of Zeitgeist is the blatant cash grab it represents. Released under four different versions at four different types of stores it’s an odd play by both the label (Warner) and Corgan for it almost seems to beg for illegal file sharing. But, mostly it’s a slap in the face to the smaller stores for they receive the plain album without any of the bonus tracks that one could find at Target or Best Buy or Itunes. It is these kind of practices that makes one wonder what in the hell the industry is thinking, especially when they bitch and moan about falling profits and lower record sales.

It will be interesting to see if this new version of the Pumpkins survives or if this is just another manifestation of Corgan’s solo career. If they do survive, then maybe, just maybe, someone can harness the ego of Corgan and make a record on par with his older work. If not, then Corgan is doomed to forever be in the halls of the “might’ve beens” and “once weres” a musician who once had it all but lost it to the throes of hubris.

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2 responses

8 11 2007
neogrunge

Mellon Collie is certainly a good album, but a great album? Maybe if Corgan’s ego hadn’t inflated it into two discs – it’s basically one great album mixed with one album of mediocre filler. Disc two in particular packs too many songs that are vaguely electronica, faintly rock, and ultimately nothing. And Mellon Collie’s stripped-down production doesn’t compliment the band’s style the way Butch Vig’s larger than life production did for Gish and Siamese dream.

4 07 2008
Jake Witmer

It is Corgan’s ego that is responsible for the great work he’s produced… I recommend that people who disagree read a book called “The Virtue of Selfishness”… Corgan’s music is excellent, and it’s his. He is a complete picture of rock rebellion, and his music provides the mood for the inscription on the Gadsden flag. I’ll be listening to him this 4th of July. …A great soundtrack to America’s last hurrah. Keep making music Billy, and don’t let the world of talentless critics get you down.

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