So the new Smashing Pumpkins album is out.
I’m still working out whether or not I like it.
The Smashing Pumpkins are, for me, one of those bands that completely alters the wiring in the brain about music. I was a teenager in the mid/late 90s and was totally caught up in both the Canadian rock resurgence and Alternative rock (along with some now cringe-inducing nu metal). The Pumpkins were at the top of the heap for me and most of the group I spent the majority of my time with. We had a pretty serious band going at the time and there was definitely a heavy SP influence on the group; some of our first covers were “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” and “Today”. I’d skip school a lot of days to head down to our rehearsal studio and just sit for hours playing along to cassette (!!!) copies of Gish and Siamese Dream on the tape deck we had.
I can vividly recall cutting class with friends on the days that both Adore and Machina: The Machines of God were released, going to the mall instead of school to line up outside the HMV to buy the new albums. As soon as the coveted disc was in hand I’d put it in my discman, throw on the headphones, hop on a bus and just ride until the end of the album. There are few moments more zen than sitting in the back of a public bus with headphones on and a great album blaring into your brain while watching the streets crawl by.
Adore, especially, was a major turning point and really rearranged the space in my nascent brain about the expectations of bands. I was shocked by the sheer change in velocity of that record. Coming off of Mellon Collie, the world tours, the loss of Jimmy Chamberlain, and all that giant superstar madness I’m sure it would have been a definite option for Billy Corgan to either close up shop or else just shovel out a heartless chunk of alternarock fuzz that would have sold just as well. What Adore turned out to be was pretty much a master class in how to reinvent oneself musically while retaining the core feeling and power of the original concept of the band. I think the best description I’ve ever heard for Adore is “campfire songs for the digital generation.” This really resonates with me. The songs are all very intimate sounding but coated in a very production heavy, electronic sheen. I really can’t overstate how much I love the album and I really think it’s getting better with age.
When the Pumpkins broke up (the first time) I was pretty crushed. I did get to see them live before the end at Summersault in 2000. It was part of their farewell tour, with Melissa Auf der Maur playing bass but Jimmy Chamberlain back behind the kit. It will forever stand out as one of my great concert experiences. Two parts that stand out for me: being front and centre in the pit when Billy launched into the guitar solo for Cherub Rock; and them playing Mayonnaise and 1979 with the sun setting behind the stage. With the last album and tour I was sure I was saying goodbye to one of, if not the, most influential band in my life.
So the band has been back for, what, three albums now. The announcement of Billy reforming the Pumpkins and releasing Zeitgeist had me buzzing for new material. That album fell kinda flat for me though. Even though it was the Pumpkins it didn’t really feel quite right. There are definitely some strong tracks but it lacks the depth I have come to associate with the band.
Oceania came out a couple years ago and I felt pretty good about it. I wasn’t sure how Billy would fill the holes left by James, D’arcy, and Jimmy but Jeff, Nicole, and Mike were enough to approximate what I felt the band was. Mike Byrne especially had some huge shoes to fill left by Jimmy whom I think of as one of, if not the, best drummers in the world. The album felt more like what I remembered a Pumpkins album feeling like. I went to the Edmonton stop of the Oceania tour and was actually blown away by how they sounded live. It was great to hear the entire new album in sequence for the first half of the show but of course I was there for the second half. There was a definite nostalgic moment when they played Cherub Rock and I was pleasantly surprised that Billy included X.Y.U. (one of the heaviest SP songs and one of my favourites) in the set.
Which brings me to Monuments To An Elegy, which is apparently one of two new SP albums set to be released this year. Nicole and Mike are no longer member of the band. I was confused by the decision to leave them behind but I wasn’t going to question BC’s choices on musicians. That is, until I heard that Tommy Fucking Lee was brought in to play drums on the album. This news definitely had me worried from the moment I read about it. It may have become apparent in the preceding paragraphs that I have major respect for JC and was even happily surprised by Mike Byrne. For me a major part part of what makes the Pumpkins discography so great is the level of musicianship that Jimmy Chamberlain brought to the rhythm section. And Mike Byrne, while not equivalent to the powerhouse that is Jimmy Chamberlain, did a fantastic job behind the kit for SP. But, and I cannot stress this enough, Tommy Lee cannot hold a fucking HOPE of being anywhere NEAR the drummer Jimmy is. Sure he can play well enough for the bloated, horrible freak show that is Mötley Crüe but I’m sure you could put a drunk monkey in place of just about any of them and still get what you’re looking for. The drumming on MTAE is actually holding the album back from being what it could be. There are a few tracks where it really stands out (Tiberius, One and All, Monuments come immediately to mind).
I don’t know. Maybe I’m just holding on to my history with the music that BC once made and thus cannot grasp what he is doing now. All credit to Billy for continuing on with the Pumpkins name and creating music still but I can’t help but feel a little bit like he has lost his way. It could be that I just interface with new music from anyone differently these days, which certainly holds true with a lot of the more recent bands that I became a fan of in the last decade or so and have trouble getting into their newer material. Whatever the case is, I’m still digesting the album when I have a chance to listen to it and the one holdover from previous SP albums is the feeling that it will take multiple listens to fully peel back the layers to see the heart of it.
This went a tad longer and became a bit more meandering than I meant it to be but that’s okay. Part of the reason I love this band so much is the fact that they inspire so much passion in me, not just for their work but for music in general and the way I interact with it.
Thanks for listening, we’ll talk again soon.