It’s hard being Billy Corgan, as he is continually telling us. The Smashing Pumpkins frontman’s recent years have been defined by ever-more-bizarre public appearances and statements, as he formed a wrestling league, become deeply involved in new-age mysticism, and first made an appeal to his former bandmates and then told them, in no uncertain terms, to fuck off. This all seemed in some way a reaction to the Pumpkins’ declining reputation in the annals of rock history. The grunge revolution they were reluctantly a part of spawned more imitators of bands like Alice in Chains or Nirvana (aside from The Silversun Pickups who exist almost exclusively as an SP tribute band). But at times it just seemed that Corgan was disconnected from reality, as any man who once wrote the lines “cupid hath pulled back his sweetheart’s bow” would have to be to accuse anyone – even the self-serious Radiohead – of pomposity.
To hear Billy explain himself on the latest Smashing Pumpkins record, Oceania, he’s “easy to know”, but is the music contained on the new record enough to clear the beleaguered frontman’s reputation and secure him the place in rock history he so clearly believes he deserves? Not quite, but it’s a surprisingly strong record from a group whose last effort, 2007’s Zeitgeist, seemed a desperate attempt to connect to the fans of the moment. Oceania suggests that Corgan may just be making music for himself, and it’s all the better for it. The album does feature several songs that return to the sun dappled metal crunch of the band’s 1993 mega-hit Siamese Dream, but much of the record is defined by Corgan’s love of all things 80’s – from ELO to Cheap Trick, with a heavy dose of Styx.
Billy has a good band behind him this time (though it’s hard to say just how many of these parts Billy played himself, in his usual fashion), and he’s found a nice vocal balance between the weak falsetto whine of his recent projects and the old 1995-era growl. But Corgan lost control of his dynamics a long time ago, and Oceania does suffer from the sameness that sunk both Zeitgeist and the original line-up’s last gasp album, Machina. There are only a few songs on the album which would stand on their own – potentially the reason that Corgan suggests that the album must be heard as one piece. As it is, that approach isn’t really necessary. The songs don’t really flow into each other symphonically, they’re just hard to differentiate.
As always, the guitar theatrics are remarkable, specifically in the opening rampage, “Quasar” and “Inkness”, the song that is most evocative of Siamese Dream (it plays in parts like a mash-up of “Geek U.S.A”. and “Mayonaise”). And there’s a charming, hopeful spirit to the entire piece. The album is infused with the same gee-whiz optimism of Corgan’s one-shot Zwan project, far removed from the blackness of Zeitgeist and easily the happiest album Corgan has ever released under the Pumpkins banner. If the early SP records catalog a doubter’s journey to belief, than Oceania marks that believers embrace of new-age philosophies, with the appropriate shiny, happy lyrics.
And hoo boy, those lyrics. 20 years later even the lyrics on Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness seem pretty silly, but in the moment they served as a genuine connection to the angst of its teenage devotees. The lyrics on Oceania keep the listener at a bland distance, filled with loving platitudes that profess an embrace of life suggesting a newfound maturity that Corgan’s continually prickly public persona belies. The simple words are a drag on some truly excellent riffs and melodies.
Only on the track “Oceania” does Corgan find the old gloom, as he complains that he is “so alone, but better than I ever was”, a swing at critics and old band members alike. It’s the centerpiece of the album and, we would suppose, Corgan’s mission statement for this incarnation of his band. There are some haunting bits, and a nice breakdown, but the song is too frail and buckles under the weight of its length. The final song of the album, “Wildflower” ends not with a bang, but a whimper, suggesting that even Corgan can’t maintain the energy required for his victorious comeback.
Because of its deliberate echoes of SP’s old albums, Oceania demands comparison to them – and necessarily falls flat. But on its own merits, Oceania is a fine album featuring beautiful melodies and soundscapes. We’re much too far too far beyond any real sense of what “Smashing Pumpkins” is or can be to refer to this as a return to form, but still, it’s good to know that the Old Bald Dude is out there, takin’ ‘er easy for all us rock n roll sinners.
The Smashing Pumpkins, Oceania: B+