Billy Corgan’s last solo offering came in 2017 with the stripped-back ‘Ogilala’, an album of acoustic guitar and piano ballads. Produced by Rick Rubin, the album took control away from the famously all-controlling Corgan, yet this largely offered mixed results on an album as strange as it was beautiful. His latest, ‘Cotillions’, continues in much the same vein, although the album’s early songs bring some new, much-needed, accessibility – and some of the results are striking.
This accessibility emerges thanks to Corgan’s leaning towards the warmer tones of folk, bluegrass, Americana and country. He’s also collaborated with several Nashville musicians, latter-day Pumpkins guitarist Jeff Schroeder included, and their influence here is generous. Whereas ‘Ogilala’ was a tentative, nervous departure from his Smashing Pumpkins roots, here there is a greater and much more certain break from the past.
Written over a month-long pilgrimage across America (as documented in the film ‘Thirty Days’), several of the songs on ‘Cotillions’ feel like snapshots of a downtrodden land in the midst of an identity crisis. ‘Hard Times’ is a gorgeous acoustic ballad punctuated with dreamy bluegrass guitars, as Corgan wraps a warm musical blanket around a country fearful of its future: “Soon, the only gentle voice you’ll hear / Is one you cannot know to fear.” There’s a clear nod to the spirit of Woody Guthrie.
Where many of the songs from Corgan’s solo career to date have often exposed his voice a little too harshly, the stripped-back delivery here is soothing. Elsewhere, the addition of strings – particularly bluegrass violin – adds some much-needed texture to the no-frills styling of many of the album’s most sparse song offerings.
Sadly, the album’s early promise tails off in the second half. At 17 songs in length, ‘Cotillions’ loses momentum. Ideas become laboured and lost among obscure, dense lyricism. Corgan is known for creating arresting, vivid imagery – and this is perhaps best enjoyed in small doses. Several songs from the album’s second half also start to lose their individual musical identities, too: identikit melodies blend into long, invariable continuums, meaning songs such as the warm ‘Dancehall’ and tender ‘Anon’ risk being lost amid the album’s more forgettable tracks.
The album is at its strongest when Corgan offers stripped-back simplicity, lyrically and melodically. The record is most effective at its most gentle and sparse, his voice given room to breathe. Where the lyrics becomes too grandiose, words clash with the folky style, leading to abrupt jarrs in pace and direction. Yet, as with most of Corgan’s solo projects to date, there are still plenty of moments of beauty here.