Friday, July 13, 2007

Album Review; The Smashing Pumpkins "Zeitgeist"

The Smashing Pumpkins were slightly different from the rest of the burst of early alt-rock 90's bands. For one, the Pumpkins have always been a moniker of sorts for lead singer Billy Corgan - just as the Cure is to Robert Smith, Nine Inch Nails is to Trent Reznor, and Guns 'N' Roses is to Axl Rose….OK well, maybe the first two. Corgan has been and always will be the ring leader of and sole contributor to the band. This made Corgan an irregularity during those grungy, nihilistic days when other groups like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden couldn’t exist without each group member and their subsequent symbiosis. Corgan assembled the band around himself. With James Iha on guitar, D’Arcy Wretzky on Bass, and Jimmy Chamberlin on drums, this classic lineup became the group we remember as the Smashing Pumpkins, but really behind the scenes Corgan was pulling all the strings.

With that much power, some would say Corgan became a tad bit egotistical. Some would also say "tad bit" is an understatement. But can you really blame the guy? Where it ordinarily took four or five musicians to create a powerful alternative band, not only did Corgan prove he could do it all himself, but in the process he became one of the biggest alt-rock acts of the 90’s and a defining voice of Generation X. However, what really separated Corgan from the rest was his musical inspiration. Where other bands of the era harnessed that 90’s meaningless void to express their depression, Corgan dared to emote his depression through lovesick anthems and egocentric desires. He was inspired by theatrical glam bands like Queen, The Cure, and70’s David Bowie, which directly contradicted the toned down, apathetic-to-fashion look of grunge. This direct violation of the Gen-X code made The Pumpkins an irregular act that musically stood out like a sore thumb in the 90’s, yet they still fit in perfect with it's despondent sound.

By the year 2000, when the Gen X’ers had grown up and alt-rock had all but dissipated into mainstream blandness, Corgan knew that The Pumpkins time was up. He had disbanded the band, but really in name only, as if he already knew The Smashing Pumpkins were an artifact of the era rather than a band of longevity. It seemed like the noble thing to do was go out on top; as legendary and significant. But considering Corgan’s egocentricities it seemed he was doing it only to scoff at the competition; knowingly expressing that the Pumpkins were better than the rest and didn’t have anything else to prove. Afterwards he carried on with his new band Zwan as well as a solo album, yet Corgan never quite reached the stardom and/or recognition The Pumpkins once gave him. Little did he know, seven years later the very thing he was trying to diverge from would come back into style. With all this is mind it shouldn’t have been a surprise when one year ago Corgan self-exclaimed that The Pumpkins were reuniting, even though the only real reunion involved Chamberlin and himself.

No one could have predicted that this decade would not only represent a huge regression in rock, but dedicate itself to and rehash the same pomp, glam and extravagance that once made The Pumpkins such an irregular act of the 90’s. Today, headline, arena-filling acts, such as AFI and Panic at the Disco, practically model themselves after the Pumpkins theatrics, and My Chemical Romance’s lead singer Gerard Way not only worships Corgan but admits he is his greatest influence. The whole internet generation, raised on the merits of these bands, owes at least some of their overdramatic, emo life-styling to Corgan. So the new album Zeitgeist must be Corgan’s conscious step backwards into this musical oblivion, almost as if he wanted to remind all the kids on MySpace that he was doing this way before any of their new, favorite bands. The very fact that the album is named Zeitgeist, a German expression meaning "the spirit of the age", is the clearest indication that he is appeasing this generation’s lower standards.

Part of Corgan’s appease apparently involves discussing the political climate. Although on it's exterior, the album appears to be politically charged with songs like “United States” and “For God & Country”, it does not disguise Corgan’s huge ego. Coming from the guy who sang “Love is Suicide” during the grunge days, these statements more or less show he’s overcompensating for lost time in the spotlight. Gone are the long, sweeping movements and grand gestures of classic songs like “Soma” and “Tonight, Tonight”. They are instead replaced by fast chugging, melody-less songs like “Tarantula” & “(Come On) Lets Go”. In fact, the whole album plays this way. The songs sound like they were made to be played on Guitar Hero rather than to become memorable. Granted the Pumpkins have always been known to rock hard, however this time around it seems they were crafted to sound like they’ll rock hard instead of actually rocking hard.

And maybe that’s exactly the point. Perhaps Corgan had made precisely the album he wanted - the Smashing Pumpkins Zeitgeist album for the iGeneration. It is the album you download (iTunes) individual songs from instead of listening to all the way through. It may be an overcompensation and it may be Corgan’s way of reassuring himself that he’s still relevant, but is this album really any worse than the bands he overcompensating for? Sure it’s no Siamese Dream, or Mellon Collie, but that really was a different age of refinement. If anything, this album is a perfect artifact for the year 2007. It’s cold, calculative, self-righteous, over confident, pseudo-politically aware, hyper-active, and starving for attention. If that’s what Corgan’s intentions were than kudos to him, but if it wasn’t and he was unaware of the synthetic feel of this album, then maybe it's time for him to get back in that cage, despite all his rage.

3 out of 5 stars

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