Music Features

Smashing Pumpkins' ATUM, Reviewed

Here in No Ripcord HQ, it's not easy being a fan of the Smashing Pumpkins. Seeing as the staff are savvy, knowledgeable writers with great taste in music and very much in tune with what's current, there's not a lot of space to cover music that's considered "uncool." And while most would immediately jump on defending cooler alt-rock mainstays like Pavement, I do like to dabble from time to time with the less-popular alt-rock dinosaurs of yore. "Dabble" is a gross understatement, actually. Ask me about the Pumpkins, and I can easily give you an oral history of any of their albums post 2007's heavy, return-to-basics comeback Zeitgeist, which many consider the beginning of the end for the group. Some might think they stopped being a good band after 1993's Siamese Dream, so that's an even more generous assessment. And while you'll find some Pumpkins/Billy Corgan reviews on the site, Zeitgeist was the last of their albums reviewed by anyone but myself. God knows I've tried.

So, where does my mind go the moment Billy Corgan and cohorts announce a 33-track 3-act opera entitled ATUM that acts as a sequel to their magnum opus' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Machina: the Machines of God? I double down, of course. After taking a break from reviewing 2020's goth-y Cyr or their Rick-Rubin produced second comeback EP with guitarist James Iha, Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1, follow me on a magnificently pointless journey as I review each of the album's 33 tracks in the lead up to its full release. Corgan is unveiling each track every Monday via his new podcast, Thirty-Three with William Patrick Corgan, so I'll update this very same page with an updated review every week between Monday-Wednesday.

And without further a do...

Track 1: ATUM (Released September 19, 2022)

This instrumental sounds different, though it's not unexpected. Seeing as Corgan is an unabashed fan of prog bands like Rush and Yes, it's not out-of-character to hear the title track use blaring synths comparable to Tangerine Dream's 1978 LP Cyclone. This also troubles me too, as Corgan doesn't have the most solid track record using synths; look into 2012's Oceania as an example of him using them right, while Cyr was a hit-and-miss affair. Corgan mentions Bowie's Berlin period during the podcast as an inspiration, which I can hear, especially Bowie's "Art Decade" off of Low. For those who are worried they're not rocking out anymore, well, let me tell you: this one RAWKS, but more in the space rock vein. We're entering the Dark Side of the Moon, my friends. Though the guitar solo sounds a little obnoxious— think Jeff Beck trying to soundtrack an eighties cop show—it makes sense considering it's the grand opening statement. Jimmy's back in full force behind the kit too, though the production makes him sound a little robotic? Corgan makes references to space, aliens, and all that otherwordly good stuff while describing the track, but I'm mostly sticking to the music and leaving it open to interpretation. Grade: 8/10

Track 2: Butterfly Suite (Released September 19, 2022)

Ok, let me get this out of the way immediately. Upon reading the title, you might think: is there a connection to their hit track Bullet With Butterfly Wings? And yes, there probably is, but I could really care less about the lore behind these albums. Frankly, I don't think Corgan cares much either. The vocal begins with a very theatrical bent, which makes me think Corgan has been watching his Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. A few piano plinks give it something of a bittersweet mood, but Corgan shifts gears immediately with an uptempo groove. I'm a sucker for the Pumpkins' more midtempo tracks (think of Here's to the Atom Bomb or Adore (this one's a 9) single Perfect), and this track follows a similar template as its backbone. That's good. It also throws too much into the wall hoping it'll stick, from fluttering synths to cheesy guitar riffs. That's less good, but like any musical, the excess is warranted. It's a 6, though I'm raising it to a 7 because I like Corgan's vocals—and it reminds me of a lost track off his underrated solo LP TheFutureEmbrace. (7/10)

Track 3: The Good in Goodbye (Released September 26, 2022)

Let me preface my thoughts by emphasizing how much I love Chamberlain's drum work on this. It's nimble and a little showy, but it never loses the plot; essentially, everything you'd want from a world-class drummer who chooses to serve the song rather than impress. Leaving that aside, I'm starting to worry about the direction this album is heading towards. When Corgan explained using a sound effect from Sputnik-1 at the beginning of the track, the first artificial satellite launched by the Soviet Union, I was expecting a graceful transition into a more contemplative, barren place. Maybe the mood starts low, building gradually until it bursts wide open. Are we getting an epic masterpiece like Porcelina of the Vast Oceans again? Instead, we another tasteless, repetitive chugging riff (if you're keeping score, the band's official single Beguiled and Empires, which they've only played live, both utilize this motif to better effect) that transitions into proggy metalcore akin to Coheed and Cambria. And believe me, there sure are many of those if you quickly glance at the mainstream rock charts—a category the Pumpkins have never particularly performed well in terms of radio airplay. Maybe Corgan wants to compete with the likes of Ghost and Between the Buried and Me, but this late in their career, they should only compete with themselves. (5/10)

Track 4: Embracer (Released October 3, 2022)

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the first thing that came to mind when I heard the celestial synth that opens the track. I'm talking, of course, about Pinwheels, an often-overlooked track in 2012's Oceania that served as the album's core heart. With a shimmering repeated motif built around an acoustic strum, the track settled you in a tranquil course before transitioning into some of my favorite harder-rocking songs in Corgan's post-2000s output. Embracer is vastly different, but similar in spirit. Corgan's faith-driven message softly sets the scene to hint at the broader picture of where this story is headed. In this particular case, it's the yearning for connection and how outside forces can potentially align us with one another. I'm not completely sold on this one yet, but I can see this one growing on me with time. I also really appreciate Corgan's more vulnerable poetic musings rather than his recent detours into occultism, one of his more marked lyrical sensibilities as of late. Pumpkins touring keyboardist/backup singer (and singer-songwriter in her own right) Katie Cole's vocals on this one are very lovely, really pushed upfront as we've never heard since she took part in the band's studio recordings. Now, excuse me while I give Glissandra a listen. (7/10)

Track 5: With Ado I Do (Released October 10, 2022)

From what I've heard so far, I'm sensing that ATUM will maintain a sharp musical contrast with each of its three parts. Most of the heavier tracks they've previewed on tour come much later in the album, which hasn't really been an obvious indicator with the first half of part one. With Ado I Do leans more heavily into synth-pop compared to the previous tracks, but it also adds in some modern drum machine patterns akin to CYR. That said, most of CYR's tracklist sounds like rough sketches compared to this cut. Corgan may have saved the best tracks from those sessions for ATUM. And frankly, it's my favorite so far. It's straightforward, but it also has punch, melding some of his past '80s goth-pop influences; think the Cure's crunching guitars, Visage's widescreen synths, or Lords of New Church's hook-driven swagger. It's not as perfect as the latter's Dance With Me, but could anything be? (8/10)

Track 6: Hooligan (Released October 17, 2022)

It took me a while to figure out how I felt about Hooligan. On the one hand, the more I hear each track, the more I'm convinced the first third of the album will definitely follow a similar sonic course. On the other, Corgan knows how to write a really good chorus: I especially like how the synths descend ever so slightly to Corgan's harmonizing. As for the rest, I can't say I'm fully on board. Maybe the repeated chugging guitars are grating me a bit knowing that Corgan can write a mean guitar riff, and even more so knowing he has two talented guitarists supporting him. But alas, I'll be back next week with an equally optimistic open mind. A little more cautious than before, but I'm still here. (6/10) 

Update: It's growing on me, so I'm leaning toward a 7/10 now!

Track 7: Steps in Time (Released October 24, 2022)

I've wanted Corgan to prove me wrong with the direction ATUM is taking. Thankfully, Steps in Time offers another pivot that distinguishes itself from the previous three tracks, taking more of an indie rock direction with its driving rhythm and effortless, hook-driven shifts. It features a prominent synth, too, but the band doesn't use it as a crutch to build the song. Given my comment from last week about Corgan under-utilizing his guitar prowess, the track—its name borrowed from a Fred Astaire-titled autobiography—delivers in spades with a robust rhythm guitar and a terrific ascending guitar solo in the bridge. Somehow it reminded me a little of Zeitgeist's Come On (Let's Go), a charging rocker track that took some time for me to acclimate to when that album initially came out. Maybe even a slightly more metallic version of his side-project Zwan?

One special note: I haven't commented about the guests Corgan has brought on his podcast, ranging from legendary producer Butch Vig to, well, not-so-legendary iconoclast YUNGBLUD. We can further discuss the true intent behind him inviting younger guest musicians he says he respects, which is usually code for “do well in the charts and built their fanbase with the help of major labels,” if we're being cynical. Still, I commend Corgan for bringing in Tegan and Sera as this week's guest for two reasons: his own track has a punchiness similar to the slick, midtempo indie pop the Canadian twins write, and two, he's rebuilding some indie cred after burning that bridge and then some. Leaving aside his brilliant marketing move, Corgan shows a genuine interest in having these candid conversations. He's always been something of a notorious music industry detractor, one he co-exists with for better or worse, but you can tell he's taking some big, unexpected swings in terms of his decision-making on this podcast. (8/10)

Track 8: Where Rain Must Fall (Released October 31, 2022)

During his Thirty-Three podcast, Corgan described Where Rain Must Fall as a "very romantic song" that calls back musicals of the 1930s. Though I made a similar connection on a previous track, the album's first ballad continues with a spacey motif while following the more understated new wave of Eurythmics. I wish I'd felt more of an emotional connection after listening to it, but something fell a little flat for me. The song's extended final chorus is quite impactful, and it'll most likely provoke a more potent response from me once I listen to the LP in sequence. But after listening to the podcasts' numerous ads trying to get me to buy shit, which can go on and on for minutes, I didn't really care about Shiny and June's love story as much as I should. I've always been a defender of Corgan's more tender power ballads, but the constant bright, sanitized synths are beginning to wear me down. (6/10)

Track 9: Beyond the Vale (Released November 7, 2022)

I never completely agreed with the idea that a heavier-sounding Pumpkins automatically implies a better version of the band. Maybe it's the more palatable choice for the casual fans, but those keenly aware of Corgan's more sensitive side tend to prefer something in the middle. This comes from someone who loves the ferocity of Tales of a Scorched Earth but tends to skip X.Y.U. despite being aware of its doom-laden power. Beyond the Vale is billed as having “commercial value,” but it doesn't have the same hooky potential you hear on tracks like Beguiled and Empires (we'll get to both of these tracks later). Now, I understand there's a New Wave of British heavy metal sound to it, a genre I don't regularly listen to. Still, its chugging guitars are set against a click track-like metronomic rhythm that doesn't allow it to cohere in a meaningful way. Out of all the tracks, this sounds the more disconnected to me, as if Corgan had 12 hours of studio time to nail it in one day before moving on to the next track. I hate to sound this harsh because Corgan's vocals sound rather good. And yes, it's not as good as anything on Zeitgeist. Despite its “commerciality,” I hope they don't make this one an official single and let the fans decide its fate, Mayonaise style. (4/10)

Track 10: Hooray! (Released November 14, 2022)

We've reached the part of ATUM that screams “concept” the loudest, and it's already attracted a fair share of discontent. Hooray! has quickly become the target of scrutiny due to its light-heartedness, with some claiming it as the “worst” Pumpkins song to date. I'm here to say it's not even close. Corgan doesn't usually get his due for his sneaky sense of humor, and his carnivalesque detour into AI-controlled nihilism takes a turn into the fantastical. As the album progresses, it becomes clearer how he's essentially fictionizing his fears about government overreach and personal freedoms. Though a little ludicrous for my taste, you can't deny he knows how to hide his intentions well. Musically, if you can even call it that, a goofy, tinny electro beat gives way to a showbiz-like 80s jingle that weirdly channels Arthur Russell covering Styx. I'm probably giving it too much credit, but I appreciate the gonzo, “middle-aged rockstar plays a Casio keyboard” energy Corgan is going for here. “Let's giddyup and off, we want to stray,” he says before it veers into a trippy daydream, and I couldn't be more delighted to saddle up for this very bumpy ride. (7/10)

Track 11: The Gold Mask (Released November 15, 2022 via streaming and featured November 21 on his Thirty-Three podcast)

And here we are again, hearing yet another mid-tempo synth-pop track that channels the unabashed cheesiness of Kilroy Was Here. The Gold Mask doesn't capture the same novelty feel as Hooray!, opting for a more sober lament about a doomed romance, though it does circle back to the textural motifs established at the beginning of ATUM. I just wish Corgan would've ended Act 1 with a grander spectacle; instead, it falls into the predictable synth flourishes he's been fiddling with since the Teargarden-era sessions. At least Jimmy gets to play some nice fills on this one. And as for Corgan, he does lend a greater emotional resonance that justifies his explanation of the album's concept via his podcast. I just don't see myself hitting the replay button on this one. Hopefully, Corgan is holding a few surprises for us in Act 2. (5/10) 

Come back next week for a review of track 1 of Act 2, Avalanche!

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Smashing Pumpkins on No Ripcord; further reading:

Smashing Pumpkins, Zeitgeist review
Smashing Pumpkins, Oceania review
William Patrick Corgan, Ogilala review
William Patrick Corgan, Cotillions quick take
Zwan, Mary Star of the Sea review