Review Summary: Mellon Collie And The Infinite Blandness
Despite the usual honourable intentions and genuine creative motivation that may be behind it, it's always something of an eye-roller when the words 'rock opera' start getting thrown around by certain bands. With the fairly uniform sonic nature of The Smashing Pumpkins’ recent releases though, it's perhaps not all that surprising that they would return with another whimsical yarn in the spirit of their current sound. A quite sad and bitter epiphany struck me whilst listening to ATUM: Act II, the second entry by the former grunge/ alt band into their epic operatic endeavour. This was the well-known authoritarian put-down of, "I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed" cycling in my head as I subjected myself to this wallpaper-paste misfire. This repeated until around the midway mark when I had to remind myself that The Smashing Pumpkins have been disappointing me with their efforts for going on a quarter of a century now. The realisation prompted the disappointment to subside, and be replaced with an air of resigned indifference; expecting a wayward tearaway to right their wrongs and correct their course is a hope that can only be maintained for so long, and after awhile all that’s left to do begrudgingly accept it. The fact that I felt a vague sense of encouragement from Cyr really does illustrate the slipping standard of this outfit, where even an overlong, unsatisfying synthpop escapade seemed like a brief bit of respite in amongst their other modern releases. Considering the grandiose scope of Mellon Collie…, itself an epic experience littered with inspired experimentation and positively overflowing with fully developed, inspired songwriting, it is abundantly clear that the extreme, continuing lull in quality is not down to ability or lack thereof. Even during the descent into the band's modern iteration, their most enjoyable full-length Oceania exhibited frequent flourishes of this distinctive imagination and expressiveness. ATUM, on the other hand, is a display of pure complacency. A lack of inspiration. A resignation to baffling mediocrity. Having Act I as a foreshadowing was quite the low expectation-setter for the continuation of Act II. However, it is still difficult to brace for just how underwhelming this instalment is.
There is certainly an amount of intriguing lyrical content on ATUM thus far, mostly thanks to the semi-cryptic sense of emotionality offered by frontman Billy Corgan, both in tone and lyricism. The topics, unfortunately, are all too typical of latter-day Pumpkins: fantastical, folkloric, philosophical and occasionally pseudo-political. It’s all very lovely but there is a minimalistic sense of self-aggrandisement permeating every track, where fortune cookie profundities abound and genuine weight is nowhere to be found. In light of the fact that the complete release was intended as a sequel to Mellon Collie… and Machina/ The Machines Of God, despite their difference in quality, it is disheartening to note that there hasn’t been as much care and attention paid to the overall thematic throughline here. A space opera of sorts featuring established characters from its predecessors, but with additional bits and pieces thrown in according to what Corgan and the gang felt like, it seems, the muddled story serves only as a general outline rather than actual narrative infrastructure. This isn’t a problem as such, but for a project to be so expansive and feel unfocused at the same time is a real issue. The tracks do feel cohesive in sound as a whole, but simultaneously feel like standalone singles, or a collection of b-sides, and nowhere did I feel a burning urge to check in with the progression of the central concept (although I did do so, promise!). This points to a core problem in the album’s execution, as nowhere in this bloated second part is there any hint of relevant nuance or appropriate dynamic applications, instead showcasing a singular monotonous sonic landscape with the occasional addition of a more pronounced guitar whenever things feel like they're getting too understated. As Corgan himself would say 17 times over, ‘it ain’t right’ (‘Neophyte’).
From the outset, this spacey and clinical offering offers twee and bland melodies, underscored by uncreative rhythms and flat production. The synth-rich opener, 'Avalanche', features twittering birds and a trite tone that, to its credit, does have a likeable core tune. Nonetheless, it also feels mindless, rendering its general uplifting aesthetic and grand tone rather uninspiring. 'Every Morning' is another example of this grandiosity falling flat; a bloated, tepid and underwritten excursion that feels utterly flavourless. In stark contrast though, the preceding track 'Space Age' actually mirrors the intended effect of the aforementioned cut but to a slightly better standard. A ballad of sorts, the song feels earnest and solemn, utilising backup vocals that actually feel warranted and vaguely well-implemented, unlike in second venture, 'Empires'. The track is still quite one-dimensional, but the intention behind it is at least apparent and relatively well-transmitted. The moments throughout Act II that feature the more 'spacey' vibes are generally somewhat hit-and-miss, but rarely rise above being simply likeable. 'Night Waves' is evocative of a lesser cut from Oceania, feeling like a subdued throwaway pop track. The synths are serviceable and the overall effect is actually quite buoyant, but it recycles its melody too much and doesn't really develop or have much dynamism to it. 'Neophyte', too, has the air of a more assured synthpop single, being relatively pleasant and listenable, but is home to an irritating vocal hook that isn't helped by Corgan's nasal whine. This is the essence of ATUM as a whole so far; even the mildly more engaging compositions are marred by some aspect of the sound, be it vocal, instrumental or the production itself. Every track has at least one conspicuous disclaimer stapled to it.
The more rock-centric efforts on the record offer relief from the cosmic preoccupations that saturate Act II, but don't notably turn the quality dial any higher than 'passable'. 'Empires' is reminiscent of the sound of Zeitgeist; mediocre riffs and misjudged vocal lines et al. 'Beguiled', too, is pure filler with a flat melody and a boring lead performance. Conversely, 'Moss', a standout if only for its dynamic production, feels heavier, deeper, and more confident. It also features an understated solo that actually works well, as it is offset by the minimalism of the main aural structure resulting in a comparatively huge sound. Some questionable choices in vocal melodies aside, this is still one of the few memorable pieces found on Act II. At the tail end, 'The Culling' has a very pronounced, fantastical feel to it, and is home to some entertaining guitar melodies at the mid-point. Still, it is unable to convincingly portray the slightly darker thematic tone, and the resulting dissonance is quite stark. A track such as Oceania's 'Pale Horse' succeeds in this regard by carefully balancing the heavier theming with the musical tone required, and the band would have done well to heed their own example whilst penning this penultimate song. Outro to the second part of ATUM is 'Springtimes', which is charming with a nice atmosphere. It put me in mind of the Adore-era sound, albeit to a considerably lower quality. Regardless, it is a graceful, if derivative, final movement and for a brief moment actually gave me a flash of hope for the future. Fool me once and all that.
Considering the fact that 2/3 of this gargantuan washout have already come to pass, it's probably safe to assume that Act III will continue in like fashion. Though it may be a little early to pass judgement on the experience as a whole, it is definitely appropriate to feel dismayed at what has been received so far. The audacity of this breezy, lukewarm and unrelentingly tedious instalment to tread the same pallid dishwater as its precursor just re-emphasises how unambitious the project is, despite its suggestion of scope to indicate the contrary. It would usually be expected that an epic three-parter such as this would in some way develop as it progressed, no matter how cursory an evolution. The oh-so slight adjustment in quality between the two volumes is so trivial, however, that it can hardly be considered an improvement, especially when the launching pad of Act I was just as flat in execution. That there is no sense of advancement at all in the songwriting, lyrical content, or thematic overtone serves to highlight the lack of imagination apparent throughout Act II, and draw attention to a band too distracted chasing its own tail. The experience is pretentious, lacking in character, completely unexciting, and not once does it attempt to dig its heels into the mud to try and clamber out of the synthy echo chamber the outfit have found themselves trapped in for far too long now. Once again, not mad or disappointed; unsurprised.