Since the turn of the century, the Smashing Pumpkins have been a promise Billy Corgan just can’t keep. MACHINA/The Machines of God had about 20 minutes of outstanding music, 20 minutes of dreadful music, and 20 that fell somewhere in between—all of it at odds with Corgan’s “return to rock” claims for an album that had more synthesizers and chiaroscuro coloring than Adore. Meanwhile, Zeitgeist and Oceania each attempted to signify a workmanlike, “back to basics” approach for a band who never did workmanlike or basic. The whine was there, the riffs too, but that was about it. Corgan had been trying to trigger nostalgia for a version of his band that didn’t exist, so Monuments for an Elegy turns out to be his first savvy artistic move in nearly 15 years: a Smashing Pumpkins album that has no precedent whatsoever in his catalog.
For one thing, it is 33 minutes long. We’re not talking about a mid-album triptych named after Greek goddesses or a bonus compilation available only if you preordered Monuments on iTunes—like, the whole thing is barely more than a half hour. And it’s split almost equally amongst nine songs of concise, gleaming alt-rock that leaves the album title as the only remnant of Corgan’s excessive tastes. Just a few months ago, it wasn’t particularly clear why Corgan would serve as an executive producer for sync-core opportunists Ex Cops. In retrospect, it may have been method acting, or at least a fact-finding mission to determine how the Pumpkins could sound modern without being desperate for relevancy.
As a result, Corgan isn’t chasing dead formats or trying to fit into playlists at radio stations that consider “Today” to be classic rock. He simply does what most de facto “alt-rock” bands do in 2014—he tries to blend in, making Smashing Pumpkins songs that aren’t exactly aiming for spins in Target, H&M, or car commercials but wouldn’t be out of place if those did come to pass.
But Corgan has always had a latent allergy to anything associated with “indie rock” and now that it’s basically synonymous with “alt-rock,” he still has to prove himself out of step by showing allegiance to his Stratocaster. There are synthesizers and drum machines all over Monuments, but they’re fringe: it’s a still a guitar album. However, he uses guitar as a tool rather than an instrument of expression as what were once riffs are now power chords, solos are whittled down to mere leads. As a result, the songs on Monument are SP concentrate, engineered for instant impact, vestigial songwriting parts around an uplifting chorus that could really be about anything. The lyrics are stupefyingly vague, but the songs about new love sound like they could just as easily be about lost love and vice versa, while the ones about staying true to yourself could be either.
Monuments is the easiest Smashing Pumpkins album, even though it’s the first where Billy Corgan is willing to share a studio with someone more famous and egomaniacal than himself. Drummer Mike Byrne has been replaced by someone nearly 30 years his senior in Tommy Lee, best known as the frontman for the rap-metal latecomers Methods of Mayhem and skinsman for a popular hair metal concern. Corgan surely relishes the opportunity to once again rep for the most uncool iterations of metal, but the partnership is more likely a result of the weird friendships aging rock stars can form with other aging rock stars, i.e., the only people they can relate to. Lee’s excessive tastes are even more downplayed than Corgan’s here, as his impact is most Crüe-like on the funk-metal stomp “Anaïse!” It is also the worst song on the album.
But while I can’t run the numbers as to how many new fans were earned due to Zeitgeist and Oceania, it’s best to assume that Monuments will be no one’s introduction to Smashing Pumpkins—so it’s not worth pretending Billy Corgan can ever truly blend in. The album manages to neutralize the indelible vocals by evoking Corgan’s lesser-known guises of the past—the mash-note writer from Adore, the PMA mouthpiece from Zwan, and the facile pop-rocker that was mostly relegated to the B-sides during the Pumpkins’ commercial heyday. The end result is what might have been a state-of-the-art record in 2005 that would’ve done wonders for his reputation had it replaced TheFutureEmbrace.
For now, Corgan catches up with a decade in which his muse basically went missing. Opener “Tiberius” thumps at saturated power chords in waltz time while throwing things just off course with some extra time signature switches and sober piano. So now you’ve heard Smashing Pumpkins as a version of Weezer that fully embraced its late-2000s prog yen. Dear lord, is the title of “Being Beige” asking for it, especially when its crisp electro-acoustic layering and breathy vocals establish an unthinkable connection between Transtlanticism and Adore. It’s also the best thing Corgan’s written since “Honestly”, mirroring its choral surge and stilted, romantic wording. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think Monuments for an Elegy was a promising debut from a band that hasn’t found its focus yet and would sound just fine opening up for the Silversun Pickups.
But it’s the easiness of Monuments that truly make it an outlier—whether Corgan constructed a masterpiece or just sounded labored, it was obvious that a ton of effort went into Smashing Pumpkins. Once the bubbly “Anti-Hero” pops, there’s a relief in hearing the record end with Corgan having not fucked up for his longest stretch of time in two decades. But it’s ultimately nowhere near as rewarding as his best work because it took no risks. Surely, Corgan has an emotional investment in this, but he seems stuck with some of the best music in years and absolutely nothing to say about it. It’s probably too much to ask for him to go Mark Kozelek and also start writing narrative songs about his cats, his interest in combat sports, and his beef with media figures. But a glance at the titles foreshadows the songs of Monuments as empty vessels, whether it’s phrases repeated in the hopes of giving them heft and meaning (“Run2me”, “One and All”) or placeholder names of people that Billy Corgan probably hasn’t met yet (“Anaïse!”, “Dorian”). As for sweet nothings like, “I’ve never been kissed by a girl like you before” or “cherry blossom, this is goodbye,” well, you can’t pretend it’s someone other than a 47-year old Billy Corgan singing them to you.
As with Oceania, “not bad” doesn’t translate to “great” and the easiest and perhaps only way to have an emotional investment in these songs is to consider what they mean to the Smashing Pumpkins brand. Which is why “Drum and Fife” is the most resonant thing here. As with “Cherub Rock” and “The Everlasting Gaze”, it’s a strident rock song about Being Billy and Being OK With That. This is proudly anti-cool, with a Tommy Lee fill punctuating the line, “I will bang this drum to my dying day,” before an actual fife solo. He knows the hipsters never had his back anyway and in 2014, they are certainly not going to align for the big fight to rock, of all things. And he’s not trying to convince the doubters he’s not dead. When he sings, “you’re gonna listen now to me,” he’s only addressing those who have been following his beat the whole time.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1APYPEn