ALBUM REVIEW: Smashing Pumpkins “Shiny and Oh So Bright etc. etc.”

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I somehow wound up with a promo of the new Smashing Pumpkins album in my inbox (I guess he’s releasing it through a label mostly known for second-tier power metal, oh how the mighty-ish have fallen), so screw it, since the world is a vampire sent to drain anyway, here are my thoughts. I have a complicated relationship with Billy Corgan — actually, that’s a lie. I don’t. My buddy E has a complicated relationship with Billy Corgan, so I know a lot more about the Bald One than I really had desire to. I like the band okay. Siamese Dream is a great album, and they have some phenomenal singles — “Zero,” “The Everlasting Gaze,” and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” belong up with Alice In Chains’ best in the grunge/metal crossover category, and “Disarm” hits the same emotional peaks and valleys as the best showtunes. Their videos from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (god, I can’t even write their album titles without my eyes rolling back into my head) certainly left scars on my developing brain back when MTV used to show music videos.

Since then, of course, William C. has made it his mission in life to self-immolate in public. Between feuds with his bandmates, ill-advised synthpop and acoustic solo albums, buying a wrestling promotion, going full InfoWars, and reuniting with said former bandmates in a desperate grasp for relevance, he hasn’t done as good a job of maintaining his reputation as, say, Academy Award winner Trent Reznor. I saw him live on the Oceania tour and remember basically nothing. So, what’s Billy up to in the year 2018 besides failing to sell out stadiums on his reunion tour?

SHINY AND OH SO BRIGHT, VOL. 1 / LP: NO PAST. NO FUTURE. NO SUN. (fuck you, Billy) follows what I’m told is Bilbo’s post-reformation M.O.: terrible singles and pretty decent 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! E made me check out his previous effort, Monuments to an Elegy, and at least the shitty songs on this one are actively shitty. Monuments somehow squeezes an eternity into its 33 minutes. It’s the sound of an artist giving up and just trying to make his listeners feel as miserable as he does. The guy’s an incredible songwriter, but as E points out, he constantly ruins his delicate little baby birds by strangling them to death with terrible production choices. This time around, the decision to hire Rick Rubin as producer and the return of musicians who actually challenge Corgan do make him feel more vibrant and alive than he has in years — even if he doesn’t look it in the press photos.

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Photo credit: Linda Strawberry

The bad news: that angel on the cover is doing a facepalm for a reason. Corgan is like a villain in an old Bugs Bunny cartoon, constantly stepping on the same rakes and smacking himself in the face. The three singles aren’t great representations of the album as a whole. “Knights of Malta” has a nice soul choir and real strings, but boy does he not sell riding a rainbow as well as Ronnie James Dio. It’s a bizarre choice for an opener — it’s super cheerful and of a totally different tone than everything else here. “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)” is a pleasant little throwaway, but he can’t quite pull off the chorus. “Solara” is pretty embarrassing, a clear attempt to ape his Mellon Collie glory days (not helped by the self-referential video). It just feels cynical and inauthentic to where he is as an artist.

On the other hand, “Travel” is a lovely little singalong, intimate and in Corgan’s comfort zone. If you watch videos of some of the acoustic performances of the Monuments songs, he looks so happy just playing the simplified, heartfelt versions of the tunes. This comes closest to capturing that vibe. Whatever Rubin’s contributions to the production, they make a huge difference, canning the shitty synths from the album’s predecessor and replacing them with organic instruments that complement 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. “Marchin’ On” is the best rocker on the record, with an almost Queens of the Stone Age vibe, despite the somewhat perplexing lyrical refrain of “She kills the empty clock.” Iha’s inimitable guitar tone feels very welcome here. Although “With Sympathy” is named after the best Ministry record, it’s a sunny little number, pleasant and enjoyable. “Seek and You Shall Destroy” is Corgo’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 overall more good than bad. If only he’d take the advice of his album title and stop chasing long-gone glory days…

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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