Sunday, December 16, 2007

Kat's Korner: Smashing Pumpkins, tilted windmills

Kat: In July, Smashing Pumpkins released Zeitgeist. Since then, I've announced it would be the 'next' review and then found something else to focus on. Last weekend, when it was again delayed, Marci e-mailed guessing I really hated Zietgeist because the postponed reviews apparently tend to be negative ones.

Smashing Pumpkins is back. Or Jimmy Chamberlain and Billy Corgan are back. Billy Corgan is his own worst enemy. He is the killer inside and he didn't need cribbing of Anne Sexton to reach that insight. Some days it's hard to believe alternative rock is so long ago that it has 'history,' but it does.

Billy Corgan was never Kurt Cobain and that's apparently going to be a huge problem until his dying days. Alternative rock that accomplished more than copycat singles in real time featured people using their own unique voices. Tori Amos, Greg Dulli and a host of others grasped that they weren't Kurt Cobain and didn't see that as a tragedy. It was okay for that kind to be themselves and speak for themselves which is how they ended up creating art.

Corgan always came off like he had a chip on his shoulder. At the height of the 'band,' it was there for everyone to see as the songwriter gave interview after interview where he downgraded the importance of bassist D'arcy Wretzky and guitarist James Iha. There was nothing he wouldn't grab credit for and it became obvious that even being likened to Kurt Cobain (who didn't steal anyone's credit) wasn't enough, he wanted to also be hailed as a creative studio genius akin to Brian Wilson. Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream made them alternative rock stars in 1993. By 1995, they were scoring big with rock audiences which was a good thing because Corgan had pissed a lot of the alternative audience off. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness played like a never ending double-album tribute to hair metal.

Corgan promoted it as one thing (a concept album for a generation) and then gave the public something else. The headbanger crowd didn't care, they were happy to rock out. But the entire project was an embarrassment with none of the beauty Siamese Dream had to offer. Everything was packed into a wall of noise sound that required Corgan go extremely nasal on the vocals. He apparently was glad to do so and has never looked back.

He also dropped the poetry riffs and started going for the most obvious statements, overstatements really, and banalities. The world is a vampire sent to drain you, he offered as 'wisdom' and the 14 to 16 year-olds ate it up. But even they weren't sticking around for Adore in 1998 or Machina that followed in 2000.

"Today" and "Disarm" showed real power and beauty. Everything after was as bad as any of the Nirvana rip-offs. Along the way he worked with Hole and attempted to steal credit from Courtney Love. His ego mania knew no bounds. With audiences telling him "The response is a yawn," he packed up the group -- from which D'arcy had already left and been replaced with a pretty face wearing a sneer she and Billy mistook for 'attitude.' Billy started a would-be super group that actually made it onto Saturday Night Live -- a feat many other vanity projects never achieve -- and just when it appeared they could become some sort of 'modern rock' band, he disbanded them. Then he was back as an embarrassing solo. The killer of his career was always named Billy Corgan.

Having turned off the entire base in one way or another, and needing to pay bills, he announced the reforming of Pumpkins which really wasn't a reforming because James and D'arcy aren't attending the reunion. It's just Billy and Jimmy grabbing name tags and milling around the punch bowl as the band plays.

There's really something sad about a 40 year-old "Billy" (there's something sad about a 43-year-old "Jimmy" as well) and I've seen Romy & Michelle's High School Reunion. So I wasn't expecting much from the album.

But, believe it or not, this isn't a total pan. Billy and Jimmy have achieved a lot musically on this album's final songs.

Zeitgeist's biggest flaw is the wall of noise sound which forces Billy to do something that's not singing and not rapping. It's basically yelling. And listening to it at its worst, you may wonder if the boys think Limp Bizkit still rides the chart?

A friend who did pan the album in a magazine review told me the band had lost its poetry. That would be Corgan who was always responsible for the lyrics. I don't know that he's lost his poetry inspiration, so much as he's copying a later phase.

Corgan has moved away from crediting Anne Sexton but she remains the biggest influence on his writing. He's no longer picking from her early work that earned her universal acclaim. He appears to have immersed himself in her The Awful Rowing Toward God period but without her perspective and wisdom which leads to some really bad lyrics.

The wall of noise works for the first track, "Doomsday Clock" but, as it's repeated over and over, on track after track, it becomes flat out annoying. The question I always ask friends who hate the album, and most hate it, is, "What did you think of 'Neverlost'?" The reply is usually, "Which one was that?" Which suggests the wall of noise had blended it all together or forced them to eject the CD before track eight came on.

The CD's biggest fault is that it's not sequenced well. "Neverlost" is the best track on the album. In fact, starting with track eight, the album makes a huge improvement. "Bring The Light" and "(Come On) Let's Go!" are far from the miracle that is "Neverlost" but they're a huge improvement over the likes of "Tarantula." That Reprise elected to release "Tarantula," "Doomsday Clock" and "That's the Way (My Love Is)" may be the best reason to kill all the labels at this point.

Let me break it down for future boy geniuses trying to attract an audience that left long ago, the solution is not to give them a headache. That's all the wall of noise does. At nearly ten minutes, track seven ("United States") is going to drain any goodwill left in most listeners. The finest tracks are tracks 8 through 12 and, pay attention, Billy, most listeners you're trying to woo back aren't going to hear those in a causal listen. Let me break it down for Reprise, when you don't have the sense to attempt breaking "Neverlost," maybe it's time to pack it in?

Meanwhile, there's a lot of talk about how Billy's making a political statement and how the Smashing Pumpkins were never supposed to do that. What statement is being made?

The album cover art depicts the Statue of Liberty sinking in the water. Okay, that's a statement. But neither Billy or Jimmy created the cover art.

Corgan does get credit for writing all the songs. The lyrics to the songs aren't calling out an illegal war or calling for impeachment or, really, offering much of anything. That's not because Billy's using metaphors -- he stripped metaphors out of his work sometime ago for the most part. It's because his topic is the same as it ever was: Billy Corgan.

Billy Corgan feels that his own heart is a doomsday clock. I'm not really seeing anything about "Troops Home Now" in that. In "Tarantula," he's going on about how "I don't break this oath". Of office? No, he just wants "to love you when you're happy." It's perfectly in keeping with Corgan but it's not saying anything about the world the rest of us live in. In "Pomp and Circumstances," he asks what we know "but war, sunshine and grace"? I'm not reading that as indictment of war which, for the record, he's listing with sunshine and I'm unaware of any "Stop the Sunshine Now!" political group. What he's trying to achieve with the lyrics of "For God and Country" is anyone's guess. It's one of those lyrics that strings together end rhymes and hopes the listener will bring meaning to it -- meaning the writer was unable to convey. He titles a song "United States" and is then off singing about how "So tonight I got to ask you why, why tonight?" Uh, Billy, you're the one who chose to use the word "tonight" so if you don't know why (other than you needed a rhyme for "light," "fight" and "rites"), don't put it off on the listener. In fact, that's the sort of question you should have known the answer to before you started attempting to write the song.

Tori Amos opened this year's American Doll Posse with "Yo George:"

I salute to you Commander
and I sneeze
'Cause I have Now
an Allergy
To your policies, it seems
Where have we gone wrong America?

Billy, that would be a statement. But Billy's never been able to make statements, political or otherwise, or even to write very directly. He is Anais Nin's Sabina come to life, chattering on and on about himself in a way that draws attention not to the stories or the details (which will change and shift from one moment to the next, often completely erased in the blink of an eye) but to himself. The only 'message' to any of the lyrics is that Billy remains obsessed with himself. This isn't about exploring or attempting self-understanding, this is just the case of an ego maniac who can't shut up about himself. That's most obvious in "Bleeding the Orchard" which he's promoted as a song about the corporatization of alternative rock but lyrically is significant only for the repeated use of "my" indicating that he still hasn't grasped what a bit player he was oh-so-briefly in alternative rock. He likes to use "we" when writing about himself as well, for variety, and there's a desperation when he sings "We are stars" ("Starz") that tops anything Gloria Swanson telegraphed in Sunset Blvd.

"Would Billy write happy songs," wondered Maggie, "if he was praised as the best thing about alternative rock?" Probably not. He'd find a new grudge to carry. He's carrying the grudge throughout Zeitgeist which harms the bulk of the lyrics but musically it's still the best thing he's been connected with since Siamese Dream.

Billy with a grudge. That's what he was in 1993 when success hit and he didn't feel the praise was adequate. It's what he is all these years later when most long ago lost interest. Can nursing a naked grudge create a comeback?

The sales totals would seem to indicate a loud "NO!" On the cover, the Statue of Liberty's sinking; in the songs, it's just Billy.