Review Summary: A feeble attempt at a groundbreaking rock reunion
William Patrick Corgan is no stranger to band failings, mishaps and breakups, having been through the demise all three of his former groups, including first band The Marked, and all under so-called “cloudy conditions.” He has however also tasted widespread success with Smashing Pumpkins, which sold more than 18 million albums and had multiple top singles. It should come as somewhat of a shock, then, that his latest record, albeit heavily hyped, probably won’t be enough to rekindle the attention or fanbase the Smashing Pumpkins held onto for a large chunk of the ‘90s.
The title of the latest Smashing Pumpkins release, Zeitgeist, is far more than appropriate, but probably not for the reasons Corgan was thinking. The word is German in language origin and literally translated means “time spirit or ghost,” or, more loosely, “the spirit of the age,” and it symbolizes the intellectual and cultural climate of an era. Given the album's song subjects and lyrics, Billy Corgan was probably aiming for the latter. However, Zeitgeist looks to be the singer/songwriter/guitarist’s attempt at taking a band that everyone thought to be a long time dead and revive it.
Smashing Pumpkins released its sixth studio album on Reprise Records (how appropriate) on July 10, with first single “Tarantula” already in heavy radio rotation. This is the group’s first album since the 2000 disbandment, minus one James Iha, one D’arcy Wretzky, and one Melissa Auf der Maur.
This is not the Pumpkins that fans “Adore”-d this past decade. In fact, Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, who joined Corgan for his short-lived supergroup side project, Zwan, are all that remain of the original group. They are also the sole performers on the multi-dimensional record (easy enough when artists in the studio and can record one musical layer of a song at a time). It would appear that Corgan thinks he’s the basis of Smashing Pumpkins, and he’s probably right. After all, who else has that signature awkward wailing geek-goth voice? Corgan’s demeanor reeks of self-assurance bordering on conceit, while his voice sounds like an unsure, insecure and humble plea for attention.
In fact, he could probably go solo if he took the time to learn the drums. Then he could get rid of Chamberlin and rename the band Smashing Pumpkin.
Sarcasm aside, Corgan stuck to a five-man formula for the group’s inevitable live tour, which a guy and two girls joined the duo for. Jeff Schroeder assumes his spot as back-up guitarist to Corgan’s lead, Ginger Reyes takes her spot as bassist and Lisa Harriton is on keyboards, with all three providing backing vocals as well. The Pumpkins frontman has received widespread criticism from those who feel he is just looking for fame and money in reforming the famous band with only one other original member. He’s also received praise and rave reviews from some who downplay the absence of veteran members and instead focus on Corgan’s standout songwriting and adherence to the group’s signature electronica-metal-shoegazer sound.
The latest record’s White Stripes-style duo musical method paired with airy, polished backgrounds that sound like they could have been influenced by A Perfect Circle as well as pointless, Tool-sounding repetitive percussion-heavy intro and mid-song instrumental interludes (a la seventh track “United States”) doesn’t create a revolutionary new sound, just one that sounds a little ripped off – so un-Pumpkinlike. Corgan even begins to sound a little like Jack White in some spots on the record. It seems as if different subject matter is weighing on Corgan’s mind nowadays. On this record, he abandons his longtime favorite subjective angsty, poetic and emotional inner confessions in favor of militant assessments on religion, politics and the state of our union for many of the songs.
“For God and country I’ll fight, for God and country I’ll die, for God and country my soul is alive,” Corgan confesses on the eleventh track, aptly titled “For God and Country.” The album cover, a blood-red illustration of the Statue of Liberty hip-high in water, is even a stark allusion to global warming. “United States,” a nearly ten-minute long rant that goes through several musical stages, has the potential of pushing the envelope to its breaking point but doesn’t quite make it. Corgan continually repeats the idea of “revolution” against a background of ironically familiar-sounding bassy percussion beats and tired, repetitive guitar riffs. A revolution it’s not.
Unlike with virtually every past Pumpkins album, particularly Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Zeitgeist is without any particularly standout tracks. The album has none of the screechy, messy guitars of “Zero” or signature screaming emotive outbursts of “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” or even the soft-spoken inspirational rhythms of “Tonight, Tonight.” In fact, the over-played rhythmic headbanger’s anthem “Tarantula,” the song which is the most reminiscent of past Pumpkins, is markedly the best track on the record, which isn’t saying a whole lot. It sort of sounds like it might be the perfect tune for a cheesy quick step routine on “So You Think You Can Dance.” Track No. 2, "7 Shades of Black," is a slow and haunting track that reeks of bad love poetry ("fall in hate with me") set to a melodramatic, heavy and slack modern rock background that conversely borders on breathtaking. Corgan unleashes his inner guitar god on ninth track “Bring the Light” and tenth track “(Come On) Let’s Go!,” both catchy and almost instrumentally impressive, and both contenders for halfway decent tracks on the record. “Starz” is a welcome celestial departure from the prevalent political subject matter of many of the other songs (“born of love and cast in light, don’t you know we cannot die, we are stars, we are”), and a halfway decent, haunting tune that sounds a little like past single “Tonight, Tonight.”
Zeitgeist ends with “Pomp and Circumstances,” a sleepy, floaty, bass-heavy tune that would be perfectly at home on airport or elevator speakers, as with nonsensical jazzy, xylophone-tinged track “Neverlost.” Both are the spectral opposites of heavy, bursting-onto-the-scene ominous opening anthem “Doomsday Clock.”
Bottom line: Zeitgeist is a mediocre attempt at a groundbreaking comeback, and probably won’t revive the Pumpkins or sustain the group from another inevitable eventual breakup.
“I never felt so good and right, but tonight you’ll never need another sound…I never felt so real and loved and alive, no shadows follow me unsung,” Corgan wails on ninth track “Bring the Light.”