Where do you start with Billy Corgan? For the past half-decade, the man’s been as polarizing as LeBron James, having to dodge critics and fans with every move and decision. Granted, he’s not posting numbers like #6, and he’s attracted plenty of the attention himself (e.g. “Do I belong in the conversation about the best artists in the world? My answer is yes, I do,” he told Rolling Stone back in 2010), but the obscene scrutiny is almost parody at this point. Face it, the days of putzing around with D’arcy Wretzky, James Iha, and Jimmy Chamberlin are long behind him (hell, the Billy and Jimmy show is a thing of the past, too), yet he’s not exactly a one-man army these days, either. Things felt that way on 2007’s Zeitgeist, the ensuing EPs/singles, and especially the early stuff off of that 44-track whatever-we-should-call-it-now, Teargarden by Kaleidyscope. But with Oceania, what’s being billed as the Pumpkins’ ninth release (really, how do you catalog their maze-like discography?), Corgan sounds like he’s in good company.
Now, because it’s been a sort of revolving door these past few years, here’s the up-to-date roster for the Smashing Pumpkins
2.0 2.7: Corgan (vocals, lead guitar), Jeff Schroeder (guitar), Nicole Fiorentino (bass), and Mike Byrne (drums). With Oceania, there’s an organic vibe to the tracks, as if there’s a band alongside Corgan again–and that’s because there was. “We worked at it together,” Corgan explained to us recently. “Over the two years that we’ve been an intact lineup, they’ve shown an ability and a willingness and a temerity to lead, to take possession of the Pumpkins’ world, to stand up for things, to fight for things internally that are important and help rebuild my confidence and support me when other people are constantly telling me I’m an idiot and ‘go back to playing the old songs’ kind of thing.” That’s a complete 180 from the moody, self-obsessed frontman of yesteryear; if you recall the 2008 reunion tour documentary, If All Goes Wrong, Corgan couldn’t stop searching for the right quote to essentially say, “Well, there’s a reason you don’t see Iha or Wretzky–it’s because I don’t need them. I don’t need anyone. I only need myself.” While it’s still bothersome that Chamberlin isn’t behind the kit, it’s refreshing that Corgan seems to be comfortable once again.
This is the album that needed to surface back in 2007. With Zeitgeist, Corgan lost himself amidst a complicated jigsaw puzzle that was always destined to lay unfinished on the dining room table, namely because he kept looking for the missing pieces in other boxes. It didn’t help that the only support he received was himself and producer Roy Thomas Baker, whose sensationalized, glossy production made everything feel as real as a Hasbro action figure. On Oceania, however, Corgan exerts a different kind of authority, one that’s level-headed enough to go somewhere, and with people behind him. The songs actually feel like songs and not tracks digitally titled “Smashing Pumpkins anthem.” But why?
The answer is that there’s a soul to them. On “The Celestials”, Corgan manages to deliver a cheesy lyric like, “I’m gonna love you 101 percent,” without coming across like David St. Hubbins. He’s speaking with depth, triggering the same emotional chords that once hooked a generation on a multitude of angst-y lines, the likes of which would otherwise be found on crumpled up pieces of college-ruled notebook paper (“Despite all my rage, I’m still just a rat in a cage,” anyone?). But it’s that depth that’s always made up the Smashing Pumpkins; simply put, hooks, distortion, and lyrics can only take you so far. If there’s no one behind it all, or no feelings present, then what’s the point?
“Please come back, please come back,” Corgan cries again and again on “Pale Horse”, the emerald-glazed ballad that recalls the instrumentally rich tracks off 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. It’s a hungry, desperate moment, yet one fully realized, as if he’s had some crackling epiphany. Vocally, he pierces the heart over crashing cymbals, Cure-like piano melodies, and wired harmonies by Fiorentino, an oozing chemistry that hasn’t been heard since, admittedly, the days of Zwan. Speaking of which, its follow-up, “The Chimera”, leaps on Zwan-flavored bubbles, aching with an uber-friendly cadence, making it one of the more poppy tracks in the Pumpkins’ catalog since Siamese Dream‘s “Today”.
Elsewhere, Corgan cleans up the garage with the Gish-gazing “Quasar”, which Byrne uses as an opportunity to rival Chamberlin, and the jostling riffage of “Inkless”, something of an amped-up version of Hum’s “Stars”. Things get spacey (“Violet Rays”), gushy (“One Diamond, One Heart”), sprawling (“Pinwheels”), and heroic (“Panopticon”), all without pushing the boundaries too far. Instead, they maintain a happy medium, which is something that can’t be said for the band’s previous output, specifically tracks like “Owata” or “Lightning Strikes”. Even during the album’s weakest moments–for example, the proggy-yet-all-too-forgettable “My Love Is Winter”–the focus is never fractured, which is something that could have easily happened on, say, the nine-minute title track. Instead, “Oceania” adds up to an unassuming, alternative orchestral suite, melding Corgan’s recent bouts with psychedelia alongside his inherent drive to be an arena rock star.
Similar to LeBron James, Corgan will never shake the media spotlight–even if the media made its own attempt. He’s far too involved with himself to ever dissuade those around him to plead ignorance. Even now, he’s been calling Oceania his “do or die” effort, boldly stating that all his best intentions lie in this one hour-long record. Artists make asinine statements like that all the time, but with Corgan, one senses that he actually believes this to be true. If that’s the case, he can step away from the ledge and retreat to his Fender. He’s carved out an agreeable adventure with Oceania, and one that any casual or die-hard fan can embrace with true vigor. Christ, what more do you want from the guy?
Essential Tracks: “Pale Horse”, “Quasar”, “The Chimera”, and “Violet Rays”
Feature artwork by Cap Blackard.