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ALBUM: The Smashing Pumpkins’ Oceania

The Smashing Pumpkins new album, Oceania, now available for live streaming and preorder on iTunes, is due to be released on June 19th opens strong with “Quasar.”  After a moment of ambient noise, the song begins with a crunching bass line typical of a Pumpkins song, summarily followed by a pulsating guitar riff and background drumming that for other artists is intricate enough to be a drum solo.  All these things are to be expected of The Smashing Pumpkins, both new and old.

At a performance two years ago at the beginning of their Teargarden by Kaleidoscope tour I saw the new Smashing Pumpkins in full force.  Heading to the concert, I couldn’t help but feel speculative as to whether the performance would be on par with the band that I grew up with.  I had heard “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” “Today,” “Disarm,” etc. countless times on radio stations much like our own.  In early adolescence, I branched out, discovering the beauty that is their largely ignored fourth studio album, Adore.

I was afraid that idea of The Smashing Pumpkins that I knew and loved would only be destroyed by the new band, which was then, and is now, essentially Billy Corgan and a group of replacement instrumentalists that I thought could not hope to live up to the legend that was and remains the Pumpkins of the 90s.  A relatively new guitarist, a brand new bassist, and even a twenty-year-old drummer?  Could they live up to their predecessors?

I soon found out that the answer to my skepticism was a resounding “YES!”  They killed the show, sounded exactly like the Pumpkins of old, and even created for the image of the entity of the band their own nuanced flair.  I couldn’t help feeling, however, that Corgan stole the show and that it was, in reality, a “Billy Corgan” performance.  And yet, I don’t think that is something new, as the enigmatic front-man has always strove for the biggest and brightest spotlight (a compulsion that often seems to cause problems with his band mates).

Nicole Fiorentino, Billy Corgan, Mike Byrne, Jeff Schroeder

Although the new members of the Pumpkins may have taken the backstage to Corgan during the performance which I had the luck to witness two years ago, now, on their new album, Oceania, they are starting to come into their own.  In fact, in some songs the real stars are those jamming out behind Corgan, ringing out fantastically catchy guitar riffs, slamming inventive rhythms on the drums and bass, evoking emotionality with the haunting timbre of their harmonies, and delivering new and ceaselessly groovy bass lines.  In spite of these exhibitions of skill, something seems a bit ‘off’ in this new album.  I can’t pin down what it is, exactly, or maybe I have just been spoiled by the majesty of albums such as Adore, Gish, and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, but Oceania just isn’t up to par.

What makes this judgment so confusing is that while with every single song I find myself cringing at some moments, shaking my head in disappointment, I also experience extreme enjoyment of certain segments of the very same tracks.  Also, it is often only a single chorus or a progression that separates these drastically different feelings.  Each song has its greatness.  The only problem is that, unlike any of the classics of the previous Pumpkins, these songs also contain instances which can only be categorized as underwhelming.  Whether it be inane and non-poetic lyricism, disjointed melodies, or a confounding blend between the different instruments, each song has its own unique weakness.

Is this Corgan losing his touch?  Is this due to the new band members?  A pressure to change along with the music of the day?  Or is this simply me being over critical?  I don’t know, but something is decidedly wrong with Oceania, and I am not afraid to say it.

Returning to the beginning, the grungy intro of “Quasar” is freaking great.  When I heard it for the first time I was giddy with anticipation for the rest of the song and album.  It is the epitome of the Pumpkins.  It is gritty, dirty, and gets you ready to rock.  However, a mere forty seconds into the song, the entire semi-metal feel of the song is completely and utterly ruined by the impetus of Corgan’s vocals.  The lyrics are terrible: “God, right on/Krishna, right on/Mark, right on.”  OK.  Lyricism aside, Corgan’s delivery is all wrong.  It is choppy, un-melodic, and honestly the levels of his voice are too high, managing to overpower the heavy vibe of the chaotic drums, bass line, and guitar.

When I was little I absolutely hated The Smashing Pumpkins.  I thought Corgan’s voice was whiny and annoying.  However, as I grew older I began to love its weird.  The weird is where it is at when it comes to music like The Smashing Pumpkins.  I came to appreciate and be completely enamored by Corgan’s voice, especially because it was often the vehicle for beautiful melodies.  There is absolutely none of that in “Quasar.”  This is the first song (unfortunately of many on Oceania) where I am overcome by a desire to remove Corgan’s vocals from the track as it is, to me, the only flaw on the track.

Moving on, the second track, “Panopticon” is the one and only song on the entirety of Oceania that I would listen to again and again.  It is a perfect fusion of the style of a multitude of the Pumpkins previous albums, most notably for me of Adore and Siamese Dream.  It opens with incredible drum work by the now twenty-two year old Mike Byrne, very reminiscent of what I can only describe as the up tempo and harder rock of a combination of songs such as “Cherub Rock” and “Today.”  When Corgan comes in I am completely wooed every single time I listen to the song.  The melody reminds me of songs off of Adore like “Perfect,” “Daphne Descends,” and “Ava Adore.”  It is the sweet and poignant Corgan of old, the one that I expect.  When the chorus comes in with an exultant guitar riff and the lyrics “There’s a sun that shines in/There’s a world that stares out of me/All out of you, it’s real/And all out of you/It’s there,” I can’t help but smiling and wanting to sing along.  Even before I knew the lyrics I found myself humming along with Corgan, and I felt my hope rising for the rest of the album…

Mike Byrne, the 22-year-old drummer of the Smashing Pumpkins

…only to be crushed by the following song, “The Celestials.”  It begins with some light synth and acoustic guitar and a line of poetic gold: “On the day that you were born they built an empire off the scream, I can’t explain/Endlessly they’ll set you free/Give you reason to believe this empty place.”  And then it takes a turn for the worse with the first instance of the chorus.  Corgan sings: “I may seem unafraid/And I may seem unashamed/But I will be Special K/Never let the summer catch you down/Never let your thoughts run free/Even when their numbers draw you out/Everything I want is free/’Til the end (x3)/I’m gonna love you 101 percent/I’m gonna love you ‘til this ends.”  The lyrics are terrible and it sounds incredibly cheesy coming from Corgan, likely due to the odd and unappealing tune of the vocals.  Also, the reference to “Special K,” a street name for the horse tranquilizer, ketamine, that is often used as a dissociative drug is just absurd and completely detracts from any beauty that may exist in the lyrics.  Again in “The Celestials” I wish that the lyrics could be replaced and that Corgan would put some legitimate emotion into the song to match the quality of both his former work and that of the rest of the band who play beautifully throughout the song.

Suddenly, following the end of the first (to me, idiotic) chorus, the guitar, synth, and vocals cut out to be replaced by an epic crunching bass line and simple kick-drum rhythm.  Corgan rings out “Take a chance if you should go/Face upon your happy home/The scanners wait/Selfishly they might concede/You were always on your own/You can’t escape.”  Again the lyrics of the short verse are dynamic, enigmatic, all sorts of ‘-ics.’  And the freaking bass is epic.  I know I said that already, but it is.  Another moment of shimmering splendor is when Corgan briefly take off on lead guitar at the beginning of the third chorus.  After that brief moment, the song just couldn’t end sooner.  It drags on, cutting up the chorus and repeating it in different, uninteresting ways; nothing else of note happens.

Next up is “Violet Rays.”  The song opens up with a muted minor synth intro, followed by some light electric guitar.  Corgan comes in softly, beginning a stream of sophomoric couplets that continue throughout the entire track.  Following such a rhyme scheme undoubtedly undermines the quality of the lyrics, most notably Corgan’s claim that “I’ll leave with anyone this night/And I’ll kiss anyone tonight.”  The instrumentals are quite fitting for the type of song that it is, with a light guitar riff and simplistic drums for the opening of the chorus, building into complexity as Corgan experiments with the melody, dropping into a lower register and then straining his voice in his typical way to create a great dichotomy.  In this song, I am mostly critical of the shabby lyricism, as both the vocals and the instrument-work is rather good.

Corgan and new bassist, Nicole Fiorentino

The fifth entry of the album is entitled “My Love is Winter.”  The song is just about as cheesy as the title makes it sound.  The lyrics are simplistic and “My Love in Winter” comes across as more of a love-pop-anthem than the romantic, edgily poetic classics which a true fan has come to expect from the Pumpkins such as “Perfect,” “Tonight, Tonight,” and “To Sheila.”  Corgan’s vocal levels are oddly high throughout the track, as well, which is more of a fault of the production team and sound mixing crew; he should not be so overpowering, especially as the drone of his melody is not quite enough to capture one’s attention.  With this song Corgan sounds like a whiny child attempting to get someone, anyone’s attention, and ultimately failing, petering out at the end with a weak repetition of “There is love enough for the both of us/There is love enough/There is love/There is love, love, love.”

With “One Diamond, One Heart,” Corgan continues with another love song that sounds like it is written by a sixth grader with heart pangs for his two day crush: “Your stars align and you let me and your heart win/I’m always on your side/Forever near your light/I’m always on your side….However you must fight/Within your darkest night/I’m always on your side.”  It is empty of the true emotion of past work by the Pumpkins, and doesn’t do much with instrumentals either, making it one of the weakest tracks on an already weak album.  To make things worse, it ends abruptly, making the transition into the seventh track, “Pinwheels,” quite jarring as that song begins with euro-pop-esque, twinkling ‘bells and whistles.’

Jeff Schroeder, rhythm guitarist since 2007

“Pinwheels” continues with its odd synth and surf-pop like guitar, but then suddenly drops all of the momentum it builds up in the two-minute introduction, cutting all sound abruptly and with absolutely no tact, replacing the built energy with a simple acoustic guitar riff.  However, this break is probably the only real problem with the song, other than a couple of lines of tasteless lyrics that undermine Corgan’s message.  Otherwise, the lyrics are strong, which has unfortunately rapidly become an uncharacteristic surprise in this album.  Corgan begins with “Mother moon, mistress of the sun, say/I got you, I got you/Sister soul/Lovers of the tune, sing!/I got you, I got you, I got you.”  The one odd part is Corgan’s cocky and somewhat creepily possessive assertion of “you don’t deserve/But I deserve you.”

Despite the flaw in the lyrics, the song remains a strong one, progressing with careful addition of more and more singers, beginning with the beautiful vocals of bassist Nicole Fiorentino.  The drums and bass come in very tastefully, not too strong, not too weak.  It ends pensively with “If nobody wins/Then what gets lost/If I’ve got you?”

For now I will skip over the title track to the album, “Oceania.”  The ninth track is “Pale Horse,” which has an absolutely incredible beginning.  It comes in with an incredible mix of bells, bass, a minimalistic drums, timpani, a beautiful guitar riff, and even incorporates some piano.  The song focuses on an antipsychotic drug called thorazine, also known as chlorpromazine, which is the first of a class of drugs released in the 1950s and ‘60s strictly for antipsychotic action.  As the drug also has anxiolytic (anxiety-relieving) properties, this song is likely a very personal and confessional song of Corgan’s.

He begins the song, singing “If I was to listen I’d turn back/Give up on my reasons/Forgive up the past/You think I’d swallow that?”  A couple lines later, after a chorus that is mostly a repetition of “thorazine,” Corgan continues, insinuating that he will never take Thorazine as it will make him “Empty on the insides/Empty of a last pretense.”  It is quite an interesting song, although the repetition of “thorazine” is a little bit too much.  If the chorus was slightly altered, I would rate this song as equal to “Panopticon.”  It has a beautiful blend and excellent progression for a slower song.  Unfortunately, this improvement crashes and burns in the next song, “The Chimera.”

A depiction of the mythological Chimera housed in the Louvre Museum

“The Chimera” is the embodiment of the identity crisis that this album seems to be suffering from.  Throughout the album, songs sample stylistic qualities from many of the other albums produced by the band, while, at the same time, implementing aspects of music of the 80s, of metal, of grunge, and even of the garbage that is Euro-pop.  However, rather than being an interesting and provocative mixture of so many tastes, it becomes a hideous amalgamation of pointless sound and frivolous lyrics.  As a chimera is a mythological creature composed of part goat, part snake, and part lioness, “The Chimera” is a fitting name for the song that exemplifies the confusion of the album.  Each sound in the song, from the frantic drums to the barely musical guitar riff, just barely come together to form a song.  The song has variegated conflicting rhythms and the disparate harmonic elements simply do not complement one another.

The last three songs on the album are some of its worst.  “Glissandra,” “Inkless,” and “Wildflower” continue the trend of bad lyrics, delivered all too loudly and monotonously by Corgan, the basest of melodies, and I simply can’t care to delve deeper into them.  After listening to this album approximately ten times to write this review, I cannot bring myself to listen to these three tracks again, which is a testament to their dearth of quality.

The good moments of the album such as the instrumentals to “Quasar,” the song “Panopticon,” and the not terrible, but just-off-perfect songs, “Pinwheel” and “Pale Horses,” are diminished by the mistakes of the album.  Furthermore, these moments of Oceania only serve as a bar that the rest of the album completely fails to meet.

Overall, it is at times a moderately enjoyable listen, but I never exactly find myself yearning for more or pressing the ‘replay’ button at any moment in the album other than “Panopticon.”  Returning to the album’s title track, “Oceania” seems to linger on for far too long, coming in at nine minutes and seven seconds, leaving me itching for the next song for almost half of it.  However, it is not as if lengthy songs are difficult for the Pumpkins.  One of my favorite songs of theirs, one of my favorite songs in general, “For Martha,” written after the death of Corgan’s mother, Martha and off of the album, Adore, is an eight minute and twenty second journey.  It has such power and dynamism that it made my entire body vibrate the first time that I listened to it, and even led me to tears.  I will never forget the first time that I heard that track.

As for Oceania, both the track and the song?  Easily forgettable.  And I will forget it, preferring instead to stick to their older repertoire.  Listen to it.  Please tell me that I am wrong.  I want to love every second of this album just as I do all of their others.  But I just can’t.  At the close of “Pale Horse,” Corgan, backed up by the gorgeous vocals of Nicole Fiorentino, repeats “Please come back, please come back, please come back pale horse.”  To the Pumpkins I say “Please come back, please come back, please come back” Smashing Pumpkins that I know and love.

The Smashing Pumpkins circa 1998: James Iha, D'arcy Wretzky, and Billy Corgan

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