For Billy Corgan, life recently hasn’t been easy. In the last couple of years, he’s suffered divorce, the death of keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin, the sacking and reinstatement of drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, the departure of bassist D’Arcy and now a rancorous split from new manager Sharon Osbourne.
His response to this has been to create an iconic persona. Bit by bit he’s transformed himself into a caricature of the larger-than-life rock star he felt he could never be, and his music has followed suit. If ‘Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness’ started the process, moving away from the MBV-meets-Boston bliss of their early records, then 1998’s ‘Adore’ – its ill-starred rock-is-dead follow-up – was their nadir: a tyrannical barrage of electro-bluster.
Times, though, have changed. Tonight, Corgan seems relaxed, anything but the pissy tyrant of legend. Perhaps no longer willing to act out his personal tribulations as a rock (soap) opera, he seems to have decided just to be himself.
Inevitably, the gig is heavy on material from the upcoming ‘MACHINA/The Machines Of God’ LP, and that’s no bad thing since ‘MACHINA…’ is an old-skool Pumpkins record, at once deliciously florid and preciously concise. Set opener ‘Everlasting Gaze’ recalls the chest-beating tantrum of ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’, while new single ‘Stand Inside Your Love’, with its focus on Corgan‘s withdrawal from the celebrity battlefield, is simply awesome.
As with the album, there’s a sense of playfulness tonight, of pressures released. The band can enjoy the ridiculous rocking out of ‘I Am One’, three parts LA spiritualism to one part outrageous guitar overdrive. James Iha can whimsically strum the riff to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ without it seeming a malicious slight. Melissa Auf Der Maur, fresh from her stint with Hole and taking D’Arcy‘s place on bass, can throw Suzi Quatro shapes to her heart’s content. The band can cover David Essex‘s ‘Rock On’ as unironic anthem, and render their own electroid ‘Ava Adore’ as a simple power-chord thrash. And there’s a burgeoning, ecstatic gladness behind ‘Cherub Rock’ and ‘Tonight, Tonight’, an air of relief, of joy. Who’d have expected [I]that[/I] at a Pumpkins gig?
They close with ‘I Of The Mourning’, off ‘MACHINA…’, its nagging chorus – “Radio plays my favourite song” – speaking volumes for the band’s revitalised direction and the deeper redemption within Corgan himself. Afterwards, Corgan gads about the stage, waving to fans, soaking in the applause. Considering this is the guy who played an encore in full clown’s regalia in response to a bad review, the distance between then and now is startling.
Playing as if the tribulations of the past few years are behind them, The Smashing Pumpkins seem reborn, no longer the goth-rock soap opera that lumbered through most of the ’90s. Cleaning out the skeletons in their closets, or at least refusing to acknowledge them, they’re looking towards the future at last.