Let’s be clear: this isn’t a Smashing Pumpkins record. When Billy Corgan took out two full-page ads in the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times back in 2005 proclaiming the rebirth of the Smashing Pumpkins, you were right to be more than
a little suspicious.
As a means of a reunion, Corgan could have taken better routes. Rather than, say, pick up the phone to his old bandmates, it was through these ads that the other Pumpkins learned of Corgan’s intentions. Only drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, who
had already joined Corgan for his Zwan misadventure, responded.
The cynical might have seen this very public statement of intent as a means to boost sales of his solo album ‘TheFutureEmbrace’, released that week. Those of an even more pessimistic bent might suppose that Corgan realised too late that he should have slapped the words Smashing Pumpkins on the cover of his solo LP, and that ‘Zeitgeist’ is the product of such coolly commercial logic.
Regardless, the mutterings of a Pumpkins reunion elicited as much genuine, bone-felt excitement as eyebrow-cocking suspicion. Others, however, remembered those last few catastrophic UK shows in 2000, which saw Corgan indulging himself and ‘rewarding’ the audience for their years of support with below-par versions of their biggest hits, and questioned whether they could welcome the Pumpkins back into their bruised hearts.
Let there be no doubt, without guitarist James Iha and either bassists D’Arcy Wretzky or Melissa Auf Der Maur this is a Smashing Pumpkins record in name alone. More realistically, this is a Billy Corgan record, and that’s never a great idea.
Granted, in the Pumpkins, he was The Decider. Ever the little studio Hitler, during their golden period in the mid-’90s when he rivalled Kurt Cobain as the king of slackerdom, there were rumours he’d push band members from their stools to record tracks himself were they ever to so much as hiccup a chord. But however the chemistry was mixed, however the dynamic was achieved – be it through in-fighting over drug use and direction, or simply the irritation Corgan felt when D’Arcy ate the last yoghurt in the studio canteen – there’s scant evidence here of the full magic the Pumpkins once wrought.
So, that familiar, neck-prickling sensation you felt when first single ‘Tarantula’ stumbled out of your radio in all its glory? Well, Corgan’s sprinkled a little more of that voodoo on ‘Zeitgeist’, but not much. ‘7 Shades Of Black’ is a lost Pumpkins classic – a twisted mélange of Santana and Sabbath that sits comfortably beside ‘Zero’ and ‘XYU’ as the heaviest, most immediate song to bear the Pumpkins’ name.
Then ‘That’s The Way (My Love Is)’ kicks in and suddenly, it’s 1996, you’re drinking cider in the mid-afternoon sun, somebody’s got ‘Mellon Collie…’ playing on the stereo, and ‘Zeitgeist’ looks like it might just earn the right to call itself a proper Pumpkins record. It’s the natural meeting point between ‘Adore’’s darker-than-pitch tumbledown beauty and ‘Machina…’’s calculated crunch, yet remains absolutely lovely. It’s also a keen reminder of the Pumpkins’ ability to make music that stopped a moment in time and bound it to one of their songs. Everybody has a rose-gilded memory attached to ‘1979’, ‘Today’… hell, even ‘Stand Inside Your Love’.
But just as soon as you’ve been soothed with the familiar, ‘United States’ bursts through the door and guns down your memories cold. With Corgan’s howls of “Revolution” squeezed through vocal effects that Sigue Sigue Sputnik would have dismissed as too naff, it’s overlong, and frankly, a little embarrassing. And if you wanted any more indication that the honeymoon is to be brief, Corgan slips into his kooky Zwan star-child persona on ‘Bring The Light’. It’s not a bad song by any means, but for a record that until only a few minutes ago was on the verge of fashioning itself a cohesive identity, it’s something of a shock to the system, if not the eardrum.
Though, in their ’90s heyday his enemies oft bemoaned Corgan’s introspective lyrics, they’re almost Byron-esque compared to the thin frost of agitprop that coats ‘Zeitgeist’ (as if the cover itself weren’t a dead giveaway). ‘Doomsday Clock’, ‘For God And Country’, ‘United States’; you know you’re getting old when the Smashing Pumpkins, once loveable self-obsessed Gen Xers, start dabbling in geopolitics.
But the second half of ‘Zeitgeist’ isn’t a complete failure; ‘Neverlost’ goes some way towards saving the day. It’s the Pumpkins at their best, with Corgan updating ‘Thirty-Three’ with quaking guitar-swells and some spooky marimba, all the while cooing in his trademark adenoidal wheeze that “I’m in touch with you”.
So, to the relief of fans worldwide, ‘Zeitgeist’ doesn’t completely piss upon the Pumpkins’ ’90s grave. Rather, it just stands there, looking slightly befuddled – as if trying to remember the magic formula. It’s best treated as a curio in the Smashing Pumpkins’ legacy; and for those who grew up on ‘Today’, ‘1979’ and ‘Ava Adore’, you’re better left with your memories.
Two years ago, in his self-indulgent letter to those Chicago papers, Corgan declared: “I want my band back, and my songs, and my dreams.” Billy, you’re not quite there yet.