Nearly ten years ago the Smashing Pumpkins split up in grand, messy fashion; with always dramatic frontman Billy Corgan proclaiming "We died for rock and roll. It will mean something twenty years from now." So while waiting for those twenty years to pass, Corgan fulfilled all the requirements for the fading rock star:
Decent album with second, awkwardly named band (2003's Mary Star of the Sea by Zwan)? Check.
Embarrassing book of ::ahem:: 'poetry'? Check.
Head scratching electronica-infused solo album? Check.
Whiny public appeal to former bandmates? Check and check.
So now Corgan returns to the Pumpkins name, with 'just glad to have a gig' Jimmy Chamberlain in tow on Zeitgeist. The problem is, there are a dozen other bands out there doing the old SP shtick, and some of them (My Chemical Romance with last year's Black Parade) are doing it just as well as the Pumpkins at their height. So Zeitgeist comes out into a musical world that's not asking for it, manufactured by a man who's not so much growing up as growing old.
The album that results is all sound and fury, signifying precious little. Oh, there are highlights ("Doomsday Clock" is good rockin' fun), and echoes of Corgan's guitar-god youth (the made-for-shredding "Tarantula"), but for every brilliant solo there is a weak lyric, messy vocal, and twelve songs that pretty much all sound the same.
Beginning with 2000's Machina and the internet only Machina II, Billy seemed lost in his head and unsure. And instead of using that insecurity to his advantage like on the soul-bearing Siamese Dream, he hid behind meaty power chords and Jimmy's brilliant drumming. Most of Zeitgeist's tracks follow the same pattern.
Not that any of the songs are terrible, it's just middle-of-the road, uninspired alt-rock. "Seven Shades of Black" and "Bleed the Orchid" would be more at home on something by Collective Soul or Seven Mary Three. And the album's vaguely political stance seems more like a piggy-backing nod to Green Day's career-rejuvenating American Idiot than any genuine patriotic rage.
Billy seems to need collaborators to push him, or at least to add a different dimension to his sound. He may have played most of the guitar and bass tracks on Siamese Dream, but James Iha got co-writing credit on that album's "Mayonaise" , maybe the finest moment of the Pumpkin's career. And in Zwan, surrounded by supremely talented musicians, Billy seemed freer and more at ease than ever before (or since).
So for the casual rock fan it may be good crashing fun, but to Pumpkinheads a warning: this is not what we've been waiting for. Take heart, though, at the example of another huge band that split up and reunited to ever-greater success; it took Aerosmith two lukewarm albums before it struck gold again with Pump.
There's always hope that someone as talented as Billy can take the guitars back down to ten and produce a truly mature classic. He's got ten more years to make good.
The Smashing Pumpkins; Zeitgeist: C+
Stop reading this blog and download this track immediately:
"Tarantula". For three minutes and fifty-one seconds, it's 1995 again. Ranks with the best songs in the SP canon.