The Smashing Pumpkins are a hard act to follow – both as a musical act and as a fan in this day and age. From the very beginning the band has been a point of controversy by never doing what they were “supposed to do”. Billy Corgan wore his emotions (and his mouth) on his sleeve. At the time they were fresh on the scene, Corgan led music that didn’t fit into any existing genre. They came from a Chicago club scene where they didn’t truly belong and relatively quickly overcame it to join the ranks of helming arenas. In 1995, they put out a double-album of some of the best work possible when nobody in their right mind would take the risk (ahem, Gun’s ‘n’ Roses didn’t even do it with their Use Your Illusion records being sold separately). In 2007, Billy reactivates the Pumpkins with long-time bandmate Jimmy Chamberlin, seven years after an acrimonious break-up with their former bandmates (which still hasn’t been commented on by all parties completely) with the music industry that helped make them one of the biggest bands in the world having imploded in the wake of the digital overthrow in music. New band members, a new record called Zeitgeist (whose subsequent tour found Corgan challenging the fans directly both musically and verbally), unpopular licensing of music to TV commercials, re-releasing of older material, and the implementation of the Teargarden by Kaleidiescope project all pointed at signs that the captain of this alternative rock juggernaut was willing to take the ship to the edge of disaster if need be. All of this activity makes it a challenge for the common fanatic to continue throwing their support behind what could be a sinking titan of the 90′s rock scene.
Lucky for us, the Smashing Pumpkins stuck to their M.O. of charting their own course and delivered an incredibly strong effort on their new album Oceania.
This record features what I believe is a first for the Pumpkins – people other than Billy Corgan and the drummer got to play and contribute their parts to each of the songs. Armed with that knowledge, this record feels much more inspired and cohesive than the last two major efforts along with the singles released thus far from TGBK. As Billy as stated in interviews, this record sounds focused and directed at forging a new path for the band that honors the legacy of the Pumpkins but also has something new to say – “we’re doing it OUR way.”
Openers Quasar and Panopticon harken back to overdriven sounds the Pumpkins are known for. Lyrically these songs visit religion and love – two things Billy has a lot of questions and answers for. They serve as a good introduction to satiate the appetite for some rock and set up the palate for the more subdued sonic landscapes of The Celestials and Violet Rays. The Celestials opens up with a synth line reminiscent of Phil Collins’ Just Another Day In Paradise which sets the listener up to get ready for some heartfelt, thoughtful lyrics, but then it turns into a bit of a rocker halfway through. Arping synth lines opens Violet Rays which sets the mood to hear the story of a desperate lonely woman awaiting companionship amongst a group of sailors returning home after a long journey. This song captures the “new” Pumpkins – storytellers with lush sonic landscapes. My Love Is Winter also subscribes to this new formula and has always been a fan favorite live. The synth intro in Pinwheels is a bit lengthy but once you get past it, there’s a song in there which conjures hints of Americana as Billy sings about love once again.
The title track Oceania is basically a 3 part opus clocking in at 9 minutes. This is song is a challenge to be gaga over. It’s a song that’s better experienced live vs. listening to on a pair of earbuds. It may even be cool to listen to on a nice turntable cranked up loudly at home. None of the songs on the record are singles and Oceania doesn’t disappoint. It would’ve been nice if the title track could’ve been a bludgeoning array of sound like a SuperChrist or Gossamer. We’ll just have to take an artsy piece for now.
Pale Horse is a great song and finishes out the “new” Pumpkins showcase. The most “old school” Pumpkin songs are at the tail end The Chimera and Glissandra where Billy shows that SP hasn’t forgetten where it came from; however, these songs don’t retread the characteristics of those rock songs they remind us of. Inkless is the truest to the form here,and as of right now, is my favorite song on the album.
Billy and Co. have made a fantastic artistic statement with this record. It stands to be the strongest effort from them since 1998′s Adore. I do wish that Billy’s singing would be more engaging in the songs. It’s more impassioned on this outing especially on the non-rockers like Wildflower and One Diamond, One Heart; however, I miss the more emotional singing of the past where I can hear his whiny voice go into screams and whispers. I also do miss the more intricate drumming of the past as well; however, I am glad to hear what Mike Byrne has to offer in his own collection of songs. The man plays for the songs just as Jimmy Chamberlin did even if it’s not nearly as busy.
Oceania serves as a good vehicle of making the Smashing Pumpkins relevant again in an age where bands they influenced are able to do older Pumpkins better than they can. It’s a new band effectively with a new sound and that’s exactly what you’re going to hear.