Review Summary: The sound of a man who has lost the plot
Billy Corgan has never been short of ambition. Even at the height of the Smashing Pumpkins’ commercial peak, the music had a certain pretentious vibe about it. Released in 1995, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness runs over two hours long spread across two discs. The album’s twenty-eight tracks contain elements of grunge, heavy metal, art rock and all-around experimentation. Corgan has always had a reputation as a control freak – someone who famously played all the instruments bar the drums on the band’s breakthrough album Siamese Dream, and although by some accounts he softened his stance on Mellon Collie, the very nature of the record leaves it open to certain interpretation. Many would call it bombastic and generally overbearing.
Yet, at least to these ears, it works. The song writing is strong, the lyrics are earnest, and the album is well produced. The instruments are given room to breathe, and Corgan’s trademark snarl is allowed to drive the songs without overstaying its welcome. It’s the sound of a band turning it up to eleven and mostly succeeding. Sure, they are a few filler tracks that maybe could have been cut, but when listening to the album as a whole, every track makes sense and appears to be part a of a narrative, albeit a loose one.
Following the initial breakup of the Pumpkins in 2000 and their return a few years later, Corgan is still ambitious – but the music is mediocre. Even the return of founding members Jimmy Chamberlin and James Iha has failed to produce better music, despite higher expectations. The reunion has produced the very average Shiny Vol 1, and the synth pop album Cyr. The music on the later especially comes across as bland and uninspired, trading guitar for layers of synth that comes across as tacky and without direction.
Which leads us to Atum Part 1, the first act of a rock album in three parts. Corgan has again gone for a huge number of tracks, with it essentially being a triple album. At this stage of the game, it would appear to make sense to adopt a less is more approach, but that’s never been in in his wheelhouse. The music and production itself are a shadow of what made the band so special. Chamberlin is one of the finest drummers in rock history, yet he is playing parts that a drum machine could replicate in its sleep. Corgan’s acid tongued vocals have never been to everyone’s taste but were often softened by the stellar production on previous albums. On Siamese Dream the shoegaze influence saw his vocals take a backseat to the pounding drums and layers of guitar. On Atum, they are so overproduced it feels like he is right next to you, shouting in your ear. And yet, despite him feeling so close, it is hard to decipher any of the lyrics on this album. When his voice is not being thrust upon you, you are treated to synths that sound dull and tacky. The biggest offender in this regard is the song Hooray! which sounds like something you would hear on an advert for a child’s toy and is a contender for the worst song the band have released in their career.
Atum is a rock opera that does not rock. Of its eleven tracks, only two, The Good in Goodbye, and Steps in Time contain anything like a driving guitar rhythm. While they are the two best songs here, and have their moments, such as the solo in former track, they are a pale imitation of what made the band enjoyable to listen to in the first place. The group have proven before that they can create excellent music that doesn’t need to contain heavy guitar tracks. 1998’s understated Adore predominately featured electronica, (good!) synths and acoustic guitar, and is an excellent piece of work. Therefore, I don’t want to say that the Pumpkins cannot peruse other styles of music, but it needs to be sincere and have something about it, unlike the music of the past few albums.
Corgan has come out on record to say that ATUM is a sequel to MCIS and Machina and will complete the story those records began to tell. This move has widely been seen by fans as disingenuous given that he never mentioned MCIS being a concept album at the time. In addition to the music being bad, there does not appear to be any essence of a story on Atum. As mentioned previously, the lyrics are hard to make out and when you can understand them, they appear to be plucked out of nowhere and have no overreaching narrative.
To conclude, the fans deserve better, and the band can clearly come up with something better than this. They need a producer that is not afraid to stand up to Billy and say, ‘this is bad’. Clearly, someone needs to take Billy’s synths away from him, or at the very least teach him how to use them properly – Depeche Mode this ain’t. What this is, is a man trying in desperation to keep himself and his band relevant. If only he could accept that it is 2022 and stop trying to gain traction with younger demographics and go back to writing solid rock songs with a purpose, then we would all be better off, and he could perhaps restore some of his damaged reputation.