Friday, June 22, 2012

'Oceania' Doesn't Quite Bore Me Out of My Gourd, But It's Not Truly 'Smashing' Pumpkins

Album Review

The Smashing Pumpkins

The other night, when I was listening to Oceania for about the 5th time, still not hearing anything that really jumped out at me, I thought of a song called "Cast a Stone."

This was a song that head Pumpkin Billy Corgan wrote and performed under the auspices of Zwan, but which didn't make it onto that band's lone album in 2003.

Having heard it a couple times live and liked it, but not in over 10 years, when it came to mind I was able to find a version through the magic of YouTube.

I paused Oceania and listened to "Cast a Stone." While I wouldn't say it stands among the very best songs Corgan's ever written, it is, as I remembered, more acutely enjoyable than anything I've heard on Oceania.

In a nutshell, that's the problem with the new album.

It's not that it's bad; Corgan is too talented a songsmith to put out complete dreck. And to be fair, Oceania has been getting some of the best reviews the Pumpkins have ever enjoyed (see a gathering on Metacritic). But as a longtime fan who, unlike most reviewers, won't spend much time dissecting Corgan's often exasperating persona nor lamenting that he's the lone remaining original Pumpkin, I just don't find myself fawning over the album.

For though it's not a terrible listen--and perhaps better swallowed as a whole since there are few hit single type standouts--there just seems to be little here that exceeds, or even matches, much else that Corgan has already done.

Though I can't help but occasionally be turned off by Billy, I am an ardent admirer of his talent. So more than many casual observers, I'm familiar with the breadth of what he's written and recorded. I own pretty much everything he's released; all the official Smashing Pumpkins albums, the internet-released Machina II and Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, the B-sides collections Pieces Iscariot and The Aeroplane Flies High, the Zwan album (Mary, Star of the Sea) and his 2005 solo album.

I've also seen Corgan onstage more times than any artist except Bruce Springsteen; 23 times in all including seven different incarnations of the Smashing Pumpkins.

So I've come to accept that he pretty much is the Smashing Pumpkins and always was, even if I don't think it's necessary for him to incessantly insult his old bandmates in interviews. And while part of my appreciation for the Pumpkins went well beyond their greatest hits--Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was especially strong throughout--much of Corgan's gift has always been in combining roaring guitars with sly hooks.

On Oceania, the hooks are missing.

Opening track "Quasar" rocks a bit like "Siva" (off Gish) or "Cherub Rock" (off Siamese Dream), but without any musical or lyrical twists that really rope you in. And though the songs on Oceania vary in tempo and tonality, the same criticism can pretty much apply to all of them. A few of these would quite well accompany riff & hook laden songs--such as with the "filler" on Siamese Dream, Mellon Collie or Machina--but I can't recall any Corgan album (including the B-sides and rarities collections) so devoid of anything that qualifies, in a good sense, as ear candy.

Many of the reviews intimate that Oceania is easily the best thing Corgan has done since the '90s. But, at least at this juncture--and I've listened enough for the album to feel comfortable, if not yet engaging--I much prefer 2000's Machina and Machina II, the Zwan album and probably even 2007's Zeitgeist.

Devoted Pumpkinheads will probably be adequately reminded of the band they love to sufficiently enjoy Oceania, but there truly isn't a song from it that I would pick to say, "Listen to this, it sounds amazing."

Yet beyond "Cast a Stone" and far beyond "Today" or "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," just in terms of lesser known, 21st century Corgan, I would reference you to "This Time," "Let Me Give The World To You," "Rivers We Can't Cross," "7 Shades of Black" "Lightning Strikes" and many other songs as being more engagingly enjoyable than anything on Oceania.

In interviews, Corgan has called the new disc--intended to be part of a larger Teargarden by Kaleidyscope collection--a "do or die" album, but I tend to believe that regardless of the public acclaim or commercial success it garners, in a couple years he'll be back with another Smashing Pumpkins album that he heralds as the best thing he's done in a long time.

And I'm fairly certain I will buy it.

But in the case of Oceania, I don't feel it's the best thing he's done, even of relatively late. If he still loves what he does, he's still good enough at it to keep doing it--under any name, with any crew--but I suspect he'll not only never reclaim the level of rock stardom he enjoyed in the mid-'90s, but is unlikely to top himself as a rock songwriter.

My advice to Billy at this point would be to team up with a good young playwright and create a Broadway musical with a rock score. Not only has Broadway been going in that direction, but with Corgan's love of dramatically rich music & lyrics and astonishing songwriting proficiency, musical theater would seem to be the natural next step.

Instead of taking another backwards-looking one.

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