Music Reviews

The Smashing Pumpkins Oceania

(Martha's Music/Virgin) Rating - 7/10

Holding a winning streak for being steadily contentious, intrepid provocateur Billy Corgan has spent the majority of the last decade trying to recapture every fleeting listener who's lost faith in his talent. He interprets it as a failure in statistical terms, holding himself accountable for the fact that only a fraction of the 4 and a half million purchasers of Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness followed with selfless affection. Releasing a follow-up like Adore wasn’t mainly the issue – an emotionally distressing album so intricate and challenging on first listen that it was positively guaranteed to fail on a commercial scale - but it began to divulge the conflicted insecurity that Corgan had as the leader of a rock n’ roll band.

Those feelings of inadequacy only lead to him being identified as an all too easy target, an impertinent man who was setting himself up for more ridicule every time he felt like instigating every critic that had unfavorable things to say about him. Times were especially tough when he brought back to life the Smashing Pumpkins as a viable enterprise, a fair move considering that trying both the indie and solo route didn’t bring much dividends. Consequentially, it brought a mormonized replication of Corgan to the fore – an earnest, spiritual-filled missionary that was sustaining his new calling, somehow giving reference to the sort of tepid aggro-prog rock that only an untrained ear could ever be proud of, especially not a seasoned shredder like Corgan himself.

The Corgan you normally hear on record constantly questions his fate, but his public persona is far more concerned with a far more worrying future. His fear of turning into a decrepit, aging rocker has motivated him to constantly reshape his body of work, probably the one superstitious myth that haunts highly successful rockers. Because everyone fantasizes of stepping into the shoes of a young Roger Daltrey, but no one wants to be the guy who’s selling Time Life infomercials late at night. Not many artists have such command over the press with their petty, trivial banter, especially if time isn’t on their side. But middle-age Corgan has turned into a scarred, but nonetheless fascinating figure – whose words never fail to get rapaciously praised, scrutinized, and recontextualized – and somehow that younger-than-yesterday determination has made him as relevant as ever. And for the first time in years, even more than in Zeitgeist, all eyes are on him to see if he can deliver that same fire in his music.

For the first time, Corgan has found a cast of players that, even looking suspiciously similar than the original lineup, have actually put every limb to the test. And they succeed under his command, somehow playing their instruments a step above sounding merely clinical. But no one has the pressure of thriving to surpass a previous achievement more than Corgan himself, who will inevitably pull some of his older tricks to regain some traction. When Quasar opens with a throbbing bass and that all-too-familiar escalating snare roll, it predictably takes the well-intentioned path. Corgan gives a grand, welcome to the show introduction, preaching religious equality with vast sweltering guitars, psychedelic interludes and that descending, Whole Lotta Love metal slide effect. If he didn’t get the message across before with all the pre-release hoopla, he makes it clear on Quasar: we are here to rock.

That first half is mostly sequenced with a relentless bite, treading familiar Pumpkins tropes with a polished, modern rock smoothness. The soft/heavy dynamics of Panopticon renew Mellon Collie highlight Muzzle with that same flagrant optimism, as Corgan declares love is here atop its heightened, jerky guitars. Suitably, they follow with the de rigueur ballad, but what ballad it is – The Celestials is what The Cure’s A Night Like This would’ve sounded like had its protagonist stood up instead of wallowing in pitiful despair, announcing everything I want is free over a pompous, screechy riff with an enormous vitality. If it sounds borderline over-the-top considering rock bands rarely write songs as dramatic as these anymore, than the odds are on Corgan’s favor. Those towering melodies are his specialty – it’s easy to oversee his influence as an alt-rock maximalist, but the proof is now everywhere, from Silversun Pickups’ fuzz-overdrive excess, Cymbals Eat Guitars’ proud use of purple prose and even M83’s epic, shimmering theatrics.

Oceania was meant to be heard as a whole from beginning to end, encapsulated as an “album within an album”, but there’s a fair amount of tracks destined to trump Linkin Park’s Numb as the reigning champ. My Love is Winter is the kind of forceful, mid-tempo chugger that, with it’s heavy use of extensive vamping, tends to stick, while The Chimera operates in full motion with a plethora of histrionic riffs and backed with a daintily catchy chorus. Again, both seem to borrow the best moments of Pumpkins’ past - the former is a tusked version of That’s the Way, while the latter instantly screams Rocket - but there’s a resilient exuberance in both that should stamp them as forthcoming setlist staples.

So while Oceania is brimming with great radio tracks, its more esoteric moments are divisively scaled between fantastical aplomb and down-to-earth sentiment. The first moment the album really takes a risk is on the song Pinwheels, which constructs a tree-light flickering light show right before a sprawling lick; instead of going big, it opts for restraint with a pleasing acoustic twang and the surging, underutilized background vocals of Nicole Florentino. It should culminate with the rousing nine-minute title track, but somehow it flounders with so much excess that, once it ends, its directionless conclusion comes off as underwritten. Fortunately, the majestic Pale Horse redeems it with a tad more subtlety – there’s a big, brash tympani striking Corgan’s every verse, with vocals that bring to mind his wistful delivery in Adore.

Oceania ultimately wants to be a lot of things, and it makes no pretense in its ambitions with the intent of creating something that’s sorely lacking in today’s fast-moving world: an event. And there is a point where the sheer magnitude of the entire package speaks louder than the individual quality of the songs, ultimately making more of an impression that it actually merits. For that, it stands as a rousing success. But while Corgan feels reinvigorated, utterly convinced that’s he’s finally nailed it this time, the final product doesn’t hold up as an entirely ingenious one. What it does, however, is give some validity to a band that is long overdue the banner of respect it actually deserves. When glorified past acts pat themselves in the back for their short-lived, yet celebrated artistic legacy, or settle on a quick cash-in, making the effort to make another ascent into heroic status almost sounds foolish. Corgan is up for the challenge, and he wouldn’t want it any other way.