Smashing Pumpkins – ‘Oceania’

Billy’s back with a new band, and it’s not that bad…

There’s something comforting about Billy Corgan’s stubborn refusal to let the whole Smashing Pumpkins thing go. The civilised music industry can crumble, the News Of The World can close, Big Brother can avoid the axe, Brian May can work with Dappy, and yet, oblivious to change, Billy will plough ahead making nasally ethereal alternative rock music with two interchangeable yes men and a hot lady bass player. For those of us who have never quite come to terms with the ’90s ending, there’s a weird sense of solidarity to that. And however much the returns diminish, none of these records from Corgan’s post-aborted solo career have actually been awful. So we’re way beyond wondering if this band actually can be called Smashing Pumpkins. If Billy says so, they must be.

It gets better. ‘Oceania’ arrives with a marvellous amount of hubris. It’s an ‘album within an album’, a phase of Corgan’s conceptual mammoth ‘Teargarden By Kaleidyscope’, a 44-song album based on the four phases of ‘The Fool’s Journey’ version of the tarot (those ancient playing cards that may or may not be able to predict your future). This multi-year conceit was conceived as a way of abandoning the traditional album format. But lo, here is something that sure looks like a traditional album. “I still stand by my view that I don’t think albums are particularly relevant at this time,” Corgan has said. “That may change. But as far as making music… from a writing point of view, it’s going to focus me to put a group of songs together that are supposed to go together.”

Plus he’s not bothering with singles. Instead, Billy wants everyone to hear ‘Oceania’ as one. Review copies can only be listened to as a whole, because he was “dead set on making an album where every song was just as valuable as any other”. In the real world, restricting the ability of people to actually listen to the album could be compared to a Hollywood studio not wanting its movie reviewed because it knows it’s a dud.

But this is not the real world, this is Billy Corgan, so ‘Oceania’ lands somewhere between those cynical real-world practices and the grand fantasy within Billy’s mind.

And it is, in many ways, the best Pumpkins album since ‘Machina’. It’s compelling, and finds new territory. The band themselves are no slouches compared to their fabled predecessors. But it doesn’t do a huge amount to lodge itself in your memory. ‘Quasar’ rolls in on something approaching QOTSA channelling Zep’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’. ‘Panopticon’ is elegant and dreamy. ‘The Celestials’ even has a vague Californian twist on ‘Tonight, Tonight’. And things briefly become very excellent indeed around the middle when ‘My Love Is Winter’ rolls in with a chorus that recalls their very best material.

The most dramatic departure, ‘One Diamond, One Heart’ is ‘Adore’ via Robyn’s ‘Hang With Me’, and is perfectly lovely. ‘Pinwheels’ wears its heart most emotionally on its sleeve before rushing into the epic, multi-suite (ugh!) title track. The sparse and atmospheric ‘Pale Horse’, meanwhile, is gorgeous. A bloated final act descends into the psychedelic sameness that’s cursed too much of Smashing Pumpkins’ post-’90s output, and you’re bored again. In fact the main problem with ‘Oceania’ is that Billy’s big talk about ‘the concept’ is also really quite boring. Life’s too short to bother with that, even if in plenty of other ways ‘Oceania’ can be considered a victory.

Dan Martin