by Jon Hunt
Before I get to the business of reviewing Oceania, the Smashing Pumpkins’ latest record, allow me to ask a question: When the fuck did it become not okay to like Billy Corgan, exactly? Was it when they went electronic on Adore? Was it the minute Billy shaved off his hair? Or was it kind of a slow erosion that started the minute Siamese Dream “broke,” continued through the double-album-pretentiousness of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (because who the fuck likes double albums, really? They’re so un-Minnesota in their ostentatiousness!), the fallow years of Machina and Zwan and Billy’s solo efforts, and right up through the new lineup of the Pumpkins which share precisely one member (guess who?) with the original one?
And does it have to do with Billy’s music, really? Or is it more an anti-cult-of-personality thing – the same reason we all supposedly hate Ryan Adams – because he’s a colossal dickhead? Are we really stopping to analyze his music or are we writing it off with a gigantic “pshaw” based on the foregone conclusion that because he sucks that it can’t possibly be any good, the way we do to – well, any record by anybody we decide we collectively hate?
Because from this angle – meaning from the perspective of a contrarian music critic who often finds himself at odds with public consensus (read: a snob, i.e., ask me about my Styx records) – Billy Corgan seems like just the kind of guy we should all fucking love. He plays interesting, often difficult music, frequently in defiance of current trends. His music is based on layers of guitars, stacked meticulously on top of each other to achieve a kind of guitar saturation point over which his frequently hooky melodies and choruses sit. He knows how to make noise pretty. He understands and embraces psychedelia and pop and pretty much builds these things in the studio, by himself, like some kind of crazed, obsessed auteur. If you look at him from that angle, he’s My Bloody Valentine with chart success. Right?
However, take a look at that description again. Layers of guitars. Hooky melodies and choruses. Pretty noise. Builds in studio by himself, and – wait a minute, that’s Boston!
And aye, there’s the rub. I maintain that’s why Corgan can’t catch a fucking break from you guys – because he’s Boston. Because he has the stink of classic rock wafting around him like some deranged KQRS* DJ, sitting in his booth, munching on Cheetos and collecting fucking huge paychecks for hardware store commercials. He’s everything you don’t like about classic rock. He’s long songs. He’s too many guitar solos. He’s concept albums. He’s one guy in a studio with disposable backup members he fires at a whim. He’s everything that punk killed, disemboweled and hung up on the city gates to discourage wrongdoing. He is the exact antithesis of hip circa 2012 – he’s loud, he’s arrogant, he thinks he’s fucking cool and is as unaware of the “guys with beards and banjos” trend as a dog is aware of a flea gnawing at his butt.
I could posit a sort of transverse property where his very uncoolness makes him cool, but fuck that whole equation. I’m just gonna declare it officially (because, as a critic, I can do this sort of thing – it’s like being a dictator who rules absolutely nobody): Billy Corgan is awesome. Hereafter, it’s okay to like him. Not despite his flaws and foibles, but because of them. Because that’s the kind of stuff – difficult albums! Weird stylistic turns! Not caring about what you think! That makes artists interesting (see: Prince, Dylan, et. al.), and whatever your hangups about the guy, you need to let ‘em go, circa right the fuck now. If you have a problem with classic rock, or with musicians who are dickheads, well – that’s your problem, buddy. And you’re missing out.
(I’ll make another declaration, and not that anyone cares, but just speaking personally: Siamese Dream meant more to me than Nevermind. In the early-’90s sweeps of Records By Interesting, Troubled Auteurs With Loud Guitars, I reached for Dream every damn time. Billy’s post-adolescent, alienation, colored as it was by waves and waves of delicious fuzztone, seemed more the tonic for a music nerd who owned more than one Yes record than Cobain’s three-chords-and-done punk deal – not that I don’t love Nevermind, too, but there you go.)
Anyway, now that it’s okay to like Billy Corgan again, lemme first point out that you missed some pretty cool music along the way. Critics totally underrated his Zwan album, from the period where he stopped using the Pumpkins name out of deference to fan wishes and you all told him to fuck off anyway. It was great, though. Way more major-key and happy than the Pumpkins ever were, with pop melodies abounding and still some of the best songwriting from here to Tallahassee. And I maintain to this day, despite critic and fan protestation to the contrary, that there’s a few good songs on Zeitgeist, his universally-loathed attempt to bring back the Pumpkins with a wholly different lineup and basically different sound.
But I was also calling it early: the tunes he was putting out free under the Teargarden By Kaleidyscope banner were fucking great. Like really, really interesting, clearly influenced by his ’60s idols like the Seeds, and approaching, as it went along, a total return to form. And then instead of pissing the stuff out in one-and-done chunks for free, he took a bunch of the best Teargarden songs and collected them on Oceania in album form. Probably just because he could, but somehow the album format was less off-putting than a 40-song collection of free internet songs (I wonder why) and critics have been falling over themselves to declare it the best Pumpkins record since Whichever Record They Think Was The Last Good One.
And it is. But not for the reasons they (THEY) seem to think. It’s not just because this is the first record in years where it sounds like you expect the Smashing Pumpkins to sound, i.e. stuttering metal riffs and killer drumming, which it does (but that shouldn’t matter – we shouldn’t just reward bands for sounding like themselves, that’s anti-progress!). It’s because this is his most concise, varied and well-drawn collection of songs in years, basically listenable not as a huge Big Concept Thing That’s Awesome But Hard To Slog Through (read: stuff that I like but nobody else does, like Styx) but as a killer album, not at all unlike Siamese Dream, really, in scope and content. Which, at this very moment, is what the Pumpkins needed to do – prove they (he) could do that again and just deliver a giant middle finger to anti-fans in the form of a perfect-length LP.
And really, even though there are songs where they do sound like “themselves” (i.e., like Siamese Dream), there is definitely progress and pushing forward – this is no mere collection of tribute songs like some bands try for in their desperate, reaching middle-years. Fans of Ye Olde Pumpkins are definitely gonna love belters like “Quasar,” which kicks off the album with a guitar-drenched bang, or “The Chimera,” which sports one of those great guitar riffs for the ages that Billy whips out without even trying. I mean, that stuff is in there, for sure. But fans of Billy’s left-field pop turns (“1979,” you know!) will love the absolutely catchy and cool and car-radio-friendly “One Diamond, One Heart” which is led by a cool little synth turn that could have lived in 1983 quite comfortably. And fans of his really left turn stuff will adore “Pale Horse,” which chugs along quite psychedelically behind some truly demented detuned tympani rumbles, or “Pinwheels” which really sounds like it coulda been lifted off a late-’70s Styx record.
What makes this a great album, though, is what makes every great album great, at the heart of it all: every song is terrific, top to bottom – all killer, no filler. You can tell he recorded 200 million songs and pruned through them for the absolute best (and he did – I’m sure Teargarden by Kaleidyscope will continue, possibly with stuff that didn’t make the cut this time out). Even for a Zwan apologist like myself, I had to admit that pretty much every Pumpkins album since Siamese Dream had about 30 percent filler (at least – Machina, I’d argue, is more like 70 percent filler). This one does not. It is absolutely tight from top to bottom. Yeah, it gets a little slow in the middle, but that’s where all the interesting and cool songs live, so it never gets remotely boring. It’s about the right length and there’s only two songs over five minutes. In other words, he’s sliced all the classic-rock trappings you probably hated down to a minimum and took the god-damn time to craft a perfect listening experience. In other other words: it’s totally okay to like this one, even if you can’t stand KQ or Boston or Styx or whatever other shit I’ve been namechecking. It’s cool. It’s a cool album.
Which he’s been making all along, in a flawed but interesting manner, but nobody was paying attention because they were too busy being sure he sucked. So now that we’ve dispensed with all that – in a very quick, easy-to-read article you can print out and pin on your fridge as a reminder! – and Billy has pretty much dispensed with the flaws and the filler and the big overarching concepts (which I like, but I’m a nerd – again, ask me about my Styx records!), you can get down to the business of enjoying Oceania. Because it will absolutely reward your attention, even if you haven’t liked a Smashing Pumpkins record since you were a teenager or a bored twentysomething. And for a lotta people, that’s saying something.
*For out of town people: KQRS is our local classic rock station. They started out in the late ’60s like a lotta those stations did – as a progressive FM station playing a wildly freeform playlist that included awesome local stuff, deep tracks and god knows what else. They were great, all the way up through the early ’80s. Now, they’re responsible for so many people hating so much damn music due to overplaying of their tiny, over-canonistic playlist they should be collectively horsewhipped with a copy of the Allman Brothers’ Eat A Peach.