The Smashing Pumpkins


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Zeitgeist Review

by Stephen Thomas Erlewine

Way back before the Smashing Pumpkins were superstars, right around the release of Siamese Dream, it was already an open secret that they were not a democracy; they were a dictatorship, ruled under the iron fist of singer/songwriter/guitarist/conceptualist Billy Corgan. He came up with their sound, equal parts metal and dream pop, he wrote the songs, and, according to most reports, he recorded almost all the guitars and bass on their albums, masterminding their sound down to the littlest details. Anybody that meticulous was also sharp enough to know the value of image too, so Corgan knew it was better to present the Smashing Pumpkins as a full-fledged band, not a solo project, and he came up with a diverse lineup ideally matched for the alt-rock '90s: he was the skinny misfit leader, surrounded by female bassist D'Arcy, Japanese-American guitarist James Iha, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, who came across like an old metalhead on the prowl for freaky chicks. They didn't look like a band; they looked like the idea of a band, which was appealing in its own right, but for as photogenic as they were, the reason the Pumpkins turned into stadium-conquering monsters was Corgan's outsized music, which was nothing if not deliberately, self-consciously dramatic. His commitment to grand gestures was cemented when he disbanded the Smashing Pumpkins at the turn of the millennium, about a year after former Hole bassist Melissa auf der Maur replaced D'Arcy and just as Iha was beginning to bolt. The group was beginning to fracture, but the retirement of the band's name seemed like confirmation that the Pumpkins were a concrete idea for Corgan, that they were a band that served a particular moment in time, and once that moment in time had passed, so had the band. The very fact that he pretty much was the Pumpkins lent this move integrity, since it was clear that Billy could keep the ball rolling, ushering new musicians in and out under the same moniker with nobody but the hardcore being any wiser, but instead of taking that easy road, he decided to make a clean break and pursue other projects.

As it turns out, the Smashing Pumpkins era did mark a phase in Corgan's career: the time that people paid attention to him. Without that name, Corgan started playing to an ever-more selective audience, first as the leader in the deceptively sunny Zwan and then on an icy, alienating 2005 solo album, The Future Embrace, where Corgan channeled his inner Martin Gore. Neither was a radical musical departure from the Pumpkins -- even The Future Embrace had its roots in Adore -- but that didn't matter, since taken together they had the cumulative effect of marginalizing Corgan, and if there was ever a place Billy didn't want to be it was on the margin. From the very beginning, he wanted to lead the biggest, most important band in the land, eventually getting his wish as he used the indie rock underground as a catapult to mainstream stardom, but once his star began to wane he panicked and played the one card he had left in his deck: getting the band back together. On the day The Future Embrace was released, he took out a full-page ad in his hometown paper the Chicago Tribune announcing that the Smashing Pumpkins were reuniting. The only hitch was, he didn't tell any of the other members of the impending reunion, but as it turns out, only Chamberlin -- who was already drumming with Corgan -- was interested in signing up, leaving the Smashing Pumpkins as a band in name only, a Billy Corgan project at its core. This was precisely the very thing he seemed to avoid when he retired the band at the turn of the millennium, and returning to his marquee name gave this reunion a sense of desperation, as if he had nowhere else to go, and the ensuing 2007 album Zeitgeist does nothing to erase the suspicion that Corgan is anxious to regain his status as rock & roll god. To this end, he makes Zeitgeist the hardest, heaviest Pumpkins album ever, layering the record with endless guitar overdubs that wind up feeling like overcompensation, not just for the synth-driven Future Embrace but as a blustering retort to any skeptic who questions the validity of this reunion. Of course, bombast has always been par for the course for Corgan and the Pumpkins, but at their peak they truly did achieve sense of majesty, either in their dreamy, softer psychedelic side or their towering torrents of metallic guitar. Here Corgan has blunted his attack, removing much of the sense of beauty both in the ballads (which invariably are icy here, stilted synth sculptures, not the quivering, gentle pop of "1979" or the strings and acoustic guitars of "Disarm") and the rockers, which was a key to the Pumpkins' appeal. What made "Cherub Rock" or "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" work is how the sighing melody acted as a counterpoint to the ferocious guitars, but on Zeitgeist he buries his threadbare melodies beneath squeals of overly processed guitars. More than anything, it's this digitally dulled sound that saps Zeitgeist from any great impact it may have, but it's also true that there's import to the title: for the first time, Corgan is trying to address the wrongs of society, which is a big change for a writer who has spent his career turning the intimate into the operatic.

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