Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Milk From The Flower, Blood From The Dawn

The Smashing Pumpkins - Zeitgeist

Billy Corgan's precisely planned and calculated breakup of the Smashing Pumpkins back in 2000 was done in such a way to ensure that there was little question of a reunion at some stage in the future. The only question was when, and who would be invited back. As it happened Billy only held out for a mere seven years (I always imagine him pacing impatiently in the studio... “I wish I could reform the Pumpkins now...”) and the only other original member to return was drummer Jimmy Chamberlain (yes, the same drummer Billy had with him for all of the music he made during the Pumpkin's defunct period). And indeed, Zeitgeist sets off from the exact spot that their last album, Machina, left off from without missing a beat. The powerful, thundering drum fill that kicks off the album and the killer guitar riff (reminiscent of that of 'Bodies') that it dives straight into immediately reassure the listener that the next fifty minutes of music will be cast from a very similar mould to that of Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie. The odds of Zeitgeist surpassing or even equalling those albums were never good so no one should be surprised that it doesn't rank up there with them, and I would certainly not rate it as high as Adore either (of course my fondness for that album is atypical). The good news is that it's much better than the troubled, awkward Machina, and I'm pleasantly surprised to find that Zeitgeist is a worthwhile listen and a genuine return to form.

I have a few minor criticisms of it however. The cover art, portraying the Statue of Liberty half submerged under the waves behind a red, swollen sun, the Grim Reaper as President of the USA, Paris Hilton and other omens of disaster, would imply that the subject matter of the album would be inspired by the concerns of the world at large today, but it turns out to be just another trip down into Billy's navel (the epic album divider 'United States' would appear to be the most likely track to deal with such themes but Billy's whined refrain “What will they do with me?” shows that no matter where he looks for inspiration, he always ends up talking about himself). This approach has served him well in the past, but the fact is that Billy just isn't as miserable and angsty as he used to be and while that's great for him personally it leaves him with the same problem as many of his peers from the early Nineties grunge era who also found that their anguish was their muse, and the music lacks the passion and intensity of his earlier work. Taking a turn to the political and directing his anger at the outside world worked miracles for Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails earlier this year, and I think Billy missed an opportunity by not thinking along similar lines.

My second complaint is that the album is front loaded with it's best tracks. First single 'Tarantula' is found at track five and is a solid song in a very classic Pumpkins vein. The album begins with 'Doomsday Clock' and '7 Shades of Black', which both rock out like motherfuckers, and track three, 'Bleeding the Orchid', is easily my favourite from the album, with a combination of heaviness and Adore-style romanticism that is probably what Machina was supposed to sound like. Unfortunately such promise is unfulfilled as there's nothing later in the album that comes close to equalling those songs (even if none of it is actively bad).

But by and large Billy's talent as a composer and musician remains solid. The songs found here all play it pretty safe - there's no question that you're listening to a Smashing Pumpkins album and yet it would also be impossible to take any given song and place it with confidence as being in the style of any of their earlier albums, as they've developed their sound just enough so that Zeitgeist is not redundant. Jimmy's drums are as powerful as ever and Billy's return as a master of guitar wankery is most welcome. His trademark wild, squeally solos are as impassioned and unique as ever, especially the one that closes out the album on the otherwise mediocre track 'Pomp and Circumstances'.

It's far from their greatest album but Zeitgeist is certainly better than I'd feared it would turn out to be. Here's hoping they tour Australia for this album so that I'll finally get a chance to see the Pumpkins (in one form or another) live.


Anonymous said...

Billy often means "me" when he says "you" in his lyrics...and oftehn means everyone else (as is the case with United States) when he says "me". As if he's speaking for all of us.

Anonymous said...

Over time, you will grow to love Bring the Light, Come On Lets Go, Neverlost and Pomp + Circumstances...all of which scream Pumpkins. Give the 2nd half of the album some more time, my friend.

Jon said...

Having read his blog it would take some convincing for me to believe that Billy isn't really as self absorbed as his lyrics make him appear.