In the past five years, the artist formerly known as Billy Corgan has had more eyes on him for his extracurricular antics than ears on his music. The Smashing Pumpkins frontman, in between playing actual Smashing Pumpkins shows and releasing a new album with the current incarnation of the band, has appeared multiple times on the right wing conspiracy talk show Infowars (he’s evidently pals with host Alex Jones). He’s played a tower of modular synthesizers over a Siddhartha audiobook for eight hours at his tea shop in the Chicago suburbs for reasons known exclusively to him. He’s dabbled in the business of professional wrestling, quit Twitter in a huff, and then rejoined to tweet about his professional wrestling legal trouble. A photo of the singer looking sad on a Disney coaster dominated the music news cycle for a day. Even songs from the Pumpkins’ most lauded albums have transformed, in recent years, from defiant, world-weary poetry to a memeable yardstick of ‘90s alt-rock excess. The world is indeed a vampire, and it drains Corgan as much as anyone.
On the first album released under his full name, William Patrick Corgan, the Smashing Pumpkin sheds the prickly antagonism that coursed through his 2005 solo offering, TheFutureEmbrace, a misfit collection of industrial pop released when he was still Billy. Instead, Ogilala adopts a mode of disarming gentleness. Produced by Rick Rubin, it’s the softest collection of songs Corgan’s ever put his name to, built on piano, acoustic guitar, and a tasteful palette of synths.
More striking than the absence of drums or distortion is how Corgan’s voice sounds. Swaddled in Rubin’s spacious, crisp production, he sings as though he’s been taking vocal lessons. He no longer crams as much air as possible into limited syllables, but stretches out his words in long, luxurious notes. In place of his trademark nasal screams are gentle snatches of vibrato, which lend the album a lavish, classical vibe. Songs like “The Spaniards” see Corgan reaching up his range without breaking into falsetto, harnessing previously untapped vocal power. His voice has always been idiosyncratic — no one sings like Corgan, not even his imitators — but on Ogilala, he learns to use it as an instrument in its own right.
Like he did during the Pumpkins’ peak years, Corgan keeps an eye to the stars — “celestial bodies spitting out the sun,” as he puts it on “The Long Goodbye” — embroidering some of his most personal songs to date with fantastical details. While this is clearly his dad album, his first since the birth of his son, Augustus, who ostensibly appears on the cover and is referenced throughout the lyrics, it also serves as the soundtrack to the silent film he made with Linda Strawberry, Pillbox. It’s not split between autobiography and fiction; it just lives in two worlds, this one and the one in Corgan’s inexhaustibly imaginative mind, at the same time.
Whether you hear it as a fable or scan it for insight into the eccentric artist’s real life, Ogilala offers some of the most tender songs Corgan has ever written. Sure, there are some clunkers in the lyrics — the pun in the chorus to “Zowie” (“Cain isn’t able to build a superstar”) isn’t exactly his sharpest line — but there are also melodies written so sweetly they edge closer to the school of Nick Drake than the grunge-heavy decade in which Corgan was reared. On “Half-Life of an Autodidact”, he spikes an eager, leaping vocal line over a brisk acoustic guitar strum and a clutch of synthesized strings, singing about how many decades it took him to learn how to be happy: “Forty years to finally wake up/ And nine more to sling the snakes out of view.”
Even in his moments of insecurity, like when he pleads, “Take me as I am” over and over throughout “The Spaniards”’ lovely chorus, Corgan seems to have found something like peace. The anger and frustration that characterized his most famous work melts away on Ogilala, which stands out as his most centered, vulnerable, and soothing music yet. That he’s able to arrive here while still honing his songcraft more than 25 years into his career is no small feat; it’s the holy grail for any rock star who’s survived his years in the limelight and moved on to the unbounded, uncertain future beyond them. Maybe the world seems sweeter to Corgan now that he’s got a kid to share it with. Maybe he’s just lived long enough to discover that the sadness isn’t so infinite after all.
Essential Tracks: “The Spaniards” and “Half-Life of an Autodidact”