The Smashing Pumpkins ‘Oceania’ Album Review
Has there ever been a band more polarizing than the Smashing Pumpkins? And it all has to do with frontman Billy Corgan. His songwriting and guitar playing skills helped make them one of the biggest acts on the 90’s, with the classic albums ‘Gish’, ‘Siamese Dream’ and ‘Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness’ (can you guess that I’m a big fan?). But his insecurity and willingness to throw other band members under the bus gave him a black eye by the music press.
After Mellon Collie’s massive success, there was the commercial failures of ‘Adore’ and it’s follow-up ‘Machina: The Machines Of God’, and the interpersonal destruction of the band in 20000. In the end I think everyone just had Corgan fatigue.
When he reunited the band in 2007 minus founding members James Iha and D’arcy Wretzky, it left fans with a sour taste, although drummer Jimmy Chamberlain’s return gave it some legitimacy.
Their return album ‘Zeitgeist’ wasn’t bad, but it never quite achieved lift off. Their world tour brought controversy given Corgan’s insistence on playing almost all new material (often written the day of a given show).
Then Corgan canned Chamberlain, the last connective tissue to the classic lineup. This seemed self-defeating, as his musical gifts were uniquely suited to keep the Pumpkins motor running. He seemed irreplaceable.
Billy was now in Axl Rose territory; a band in name only, with a bunch of faceless musicians filling out the ranks.
He then announced that they would never make an album again, and would instead release songs online, a huge 44 song project called ‘Teargarden by Kaleidyscope’. Of the handful of songs that have been released fanfare has been muted.
So, Corgan backtracked and now we have their new album ‘Oceania’, which Corgan has claimed is their best since ‘Mellon Collie’. Is this hollow bravado or can he deliver?
It is clear from the album opener ‘Quasar’ that Corgan is trying; It’s a rocking number that references ‘Cherub Rock’ and ‘Silverfuck’ off ‘Siamese Dream’. And while I really miss Chamberlain’s touch, new drummer Mike Byrne is solid.
‘Panoptican’ is the next track, and it has an upbeat verse and chorus that recalls ‘Mellon Collie’, specifically ‘Galapagos’ and ‘Muzzle’. Very melodic and driving with that sense of melodrama their best songs contain. ‘The Celestials’, follows and it’s light and airy, pleasing to the ear, with a very catchy chorus.
‘Violet Rays’ is a standout, which has the gothic sullenness of ‘Adore’ with a catchy keyboard riff that complements the clanging guitars.
‘My Love Is Winter’ is a mid tempo rocker of middling expectations. I do like the Moog keyboard mixed with the strings. Corgan as always knows how to layer his sounds effectively.
‘Pinwheels’ is one of the album highlights, with a great melody and an undulating keyboard motif meshing well with acoustic passages. It’s plaintive and stirring.
The title track is definitely an homage to the Cure, and similar to ‘Adore’, with warped guitars and an atmosphere perfectly fitting its title. Corgan lyrics are appropriately melancholy (sorry); “No one can love you, cause no one can free you, Lover’s can’t touch you, cause lover’s can’t reach you”. It’s melodic and pretty, but still quite restrained. But midway through the song things get interesting; a tribal beat emerges and Corgan begins to rip away Brian May style.
‘A Pale Horse’ is another mid-tempo track, augmented by piano with an infectious chorus. Corgan sings of a lack of a connection to others: “There’ll be no others, There’ll be no long-lost friends, Empty on the insides, Empty of a last pretense”. This could apply to his former band mates, or familial relationships, but there is a plaintive feel of remorse.
Up next; ‘The Chimera’. Finally a glimpse back into the Pumpkin’s fuzzbox glory! With the stylistic leanings of ‘Rocket’ and ‘Starla’, it has that dense rock guitar sound that’s been sorely missed. Lyrically it has the childhood storybook tone of many Pumpkin’s tunes; “Nightingales and nursery crimes, twins that spark the charts”.
‘Inkless’ recalls another early Pumpkin’s track, the b-side ‘Plume’ from ‘Pisces Iscariot’, with it’s sunny fuzzed-out octave guitar voicings.
Wildflower, closes out the album. It’s another ballad, electronic in tone, not dissimilar from ‘Pomp and Circumstance’, the closer off ‘Zeitgeist’. A bit nondescript for the finale.
In their heyday Corgan brazenly stated he recorded most of the guitar and bass parts on Pumpkin’s albums, causing dissent with Iha and Wretzky. Corgan has intimated his new lineup is fully involved in the studio, in which case guitarist Jeff Schroeder & Nicole Fiorentio deserve credit for their contributions. The cohesion apparent with his new bandmates is apparent, and more organic than expected.
The production by Corgan and co-producer Bjorn Thorsrud is better than recent offerings, but it lacks the sonic richness from the likes of former producers Butch Vig or Flood.
And vocally this is the best he’s sounded since their early days. His voice will always be a love it or hate proposition, but it’s certainly mixed for less nasal twanginess.
‘Oceania’ has proven tricky to review. Initially I found it lacking in urgency, and stuck in middle gear for most of the album. This is an album driven as much by keyboard as guitar, and that might bring disappointment to long time fans who were turned off by ‘Adore’ which this album has kinship towards. I was hoping for more heaviness, so that ‘Quasar’ and ‘Chimera’ were the rule, not the exception.
And I miss those dynamic shifts that fueled songs like ‘Rhinoceros’ and ‘Soma’. The loud/quiet interconnected song structures. That’s what made their early work so powerful. He seems recalcitrant to bring this fully back into the fold.
Be that as it may, the songs have grown on me, and many are stuck in my head. When’s the last time you could say that about a Pumpkin’s song? Corgan still can write a melodic hook, it’s just more subtle than before, and takes more time to soak in.
‘Oceania’ still can’t touch their first three albums, and perhaps even ‘Adore’. It is however a step towards the right direction, and an improvement on recent material. Fans will be polarized I predict, equal parts pleased and frustrated. That’s how I feel at the moment, but this may change, as it continues to deepen with each listen.
**You can preview and purchase on iTunes below, or click on the other links to get the album on Amazon as well as the excellent ‘Gish’ and ‘Siamese Dream’ re-issues:
[amazon_image id=”B007P6VLRS” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Oceania[/amazon_image][amazon_image id=”B005MW8CUG” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Siamese Dream[/amazon_image][amazon_image id=”B005MW8CLK” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Gish[/amazon_image]