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Review: Does The Smashing Pumpkins’ Shiny and Oh So Bright Gleam?

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The Smashing Pumpkins have a strange place in pop culture, ubiquitous in their heyday but a strange curio now. Siamese Dream is a great album, and they had some phenomenal singles back in the ’90s: “Zero,” “The Everlasting Gaze,” and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” belong up with Alice In Chains’ best in the grunge/metal crossover pantheon. Their high-concept videos and tendency to name their albums things like Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness certainly set them apart from the flannel brigade.

Since the band initially broke up around the turn of the millennium, the main driving force, William Patrick Corgan, has made it his mission to stay in the spotlight by self-immolating in public. Between feuding with his ex-bandmates, releasing a string of flaccid “Smashing Pumpkins” records that were basically just solo albums, putting out mediocre actual solo albums, buying a wrestling promotion and going full InfoWars, he hasn’t done as good a job of maintaining his reputation as, say, Academy Award winner Trent Reznor. Recently, he buried the hatchet with two of his estranged bandmates and embarked on a nostalgia-laden reunion tour. So, what’s Billy up to in the year 2018 besides failing to sell out stadiums?

SHINY AND OH SO BRIGHT, VOL. 1 / LP: NO PAST. NO FUTURE. NO SUN. (goddammit, Billy) is getting released through a label mostly known for power metal. Oh, how the mighty-ish have fallen. It follows Billy’s post-reformation M.O.: baffling single choices and better album cuts. This time he has two of his original co-conspirators (Jameses Iha and Chamberlain) backing up his terrible life choices, so there are Expectations. The good news: it’s an improvement!

Unlike his previous effort, Monuments to an Elegy, at least the shitty songs on this one are shitty in ways that grab your attention. Monuments somehow squeezed an eternity into its 33 minutes, the sound of a tired artist making his listeners feel as miserable as he did. While the guy’s an incredible songwriter, he constantly strangles his delicate little baby birds to death with terrible production choices. This time around, thanks to producer Rick Rubin and a backing band that actually challenges Corgan, his work feels more vibrant and alive than it has in years — even if the man himself doesn’t look it in the press photos.

Photo Credit: Linda Strawberry

The bad news: that angel on the cover is facepalming for a reason. Corgan sometimes strikes me as a villain in an old Bugs Bunny cartoon, constantly stepping on the same rakes and smacking himself in the face. Once more, we have three pre-release singles (from an eight-song album) that don’t highlight the album’s strengths. “Knights of Malta” has a nice soul choir and real strings, but the guy in the goth makeup does not sell riding a rainbow as well as Ronnie James Dio. Super cheerful and with a totally different tone than everything else here, it’s a jarring opener. “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)” is a pleasant little throwaway but his voice can’t quite pull off the chorus. “Solara” just comes across as a clear attempt to ape the band’s Mellon Collie glory days (not helped by the self-referential video). It feels cynical and inauthentic to where he is as an artist.

He seems much more at home in the remaining tracks. “Travel” is a lovely little singalong, intimate and in Corgan’s comfort zone. In videos of acoustic performances of the Monuments songs, he looks so happy just playing the simplified, heartfelt versions. This comes closest to capturing that vibe. Whatever Rubin’s contributions, they make a huge difference. Most importantly, he canned the shitty synths from this album’s predecessor and replaced them with organic orchestration that complements the band’s music much better. “Alienation” works because of that — even though there’s a more robust wall of sound, it retains that intimacy. The best rocker on the record, “Marchin’ On,” has an almost-Queens of the Stone Age vibe, Iha’s guitar providing some satisfying crunch. Its perplexing lyrical refrain of “She kills the empty clock” certainly wouldn’t be out of place in a Josh Homme composition. Although “With Sympathy” is named after the best Ministry record, it’s a sunny little number. “Seek and You Shall Destroy” is Corgan’s attempt at writing pop-punk, and it turns out he’s pretty good at that as well. It does make for an abrupt ending to an already-short record, though.

So, Smashing Pumpkins in 2018? Not as bad as you’d expect. A lot of the same issues as previous releases, but by far the most listenable thing Corgan has done in years, and that’s probably due to having other people in the room with him this time around. Despite all his rage, Corgan remains in a cage of his own making as long as he continues to chase his glory days — but thanks to a little help from his friends, there’s at least a glimmer of freedom visible through the bars here.

Shiny and Oh So Long A Title will be available Nov. 16 from Martha’s Music/Napalm. You can preorder it here.

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