Once a band makes it big, they can no longer shuffle around players and still call themselves by the same name. The feel, symbiosis and general authenticity of the band loses something the minute more than half of the founding members jump ship. The Smashing Pumpkins is no exception. When they “reunited” (read: Billy Corgan decided to call himself Smashing Pumpkins because his side project Zwan, and solo career, tanked, huge), there seemed to be an immediate amnesiac attack on Corgan’s part as to precisely what made the Pumpkins so great. Although the Pumpkins enjoyed their heavy rock tunes (“Zero”, “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” and “Rhinoceros”), these tracks were perfectly complemented by quirky slower-tempo acoustic tracks (“Disarm”, “To Sheila”, and “Stumbeline”). Zeitgeist, the band’s “comeback” album fared pretty well in the charts but neglected the varied take on rock music that made the pumpkins so great. It dared to present the band as a macho, glossed over and slick muscle band, when really they’ve always been the voice of those that found themselves on the fringes—the antithesis of machismo rock.
Thankfully, Corgan began to drop any pretense of a “comeback” and reverted back to the artistic and varied style that gave the Pumpkins their charm. Teargarden by Kaleidyscope began to highlight the better parts of the Pumpkins, more so than their reincarnated second debut. A conceptual recording of 44 songs released one at a time, and within this meta-album, another smaller 13-track album: Oceania. Due to its more conventional format and release, Oceania will most likely be the more recognizable aspect of the massive Kaleidyscope venture, and while it isn’t completely to par with anything they’ve produced prior to the Machina trainwrecks, it does shed some hope of a reformatted direction for a band that many believed was long dead.
Beginning with the God-themed anthem “Quasar”, an album opener that portends a more psychedelic approach to hard rock, Oceania seems like nothing new from the overwrought percussion heavy loudness that was Zeitgeist. In fact, a passive once over may leave you feeling underwhelmed. But to do so would be dismissing this record far too quickly. Admittedly, they are no longer the Pumpkins once loved in the ‘90s, but that doesn’t preclude a potentially wonderful rebirth fuelled by their historic relevance. In addition to the striking absence of Chamberlin, Iha, and Wretzky, is the complete 180 Corgan has had in relation to spirituality, religion, and love. The lovelorn torture of self-indulgent adolescence has dissipated into something more fulfilling and fruitful. This new-found happiness, may alienate many, but Corgan’s approach and poeticism around such alternative rock taboos is intriguing to say the least. Take for instance the third track “The Celestials”. On it, Corgan sings: “On the day that you were born / They built an empire off a scream / I can’t explain / Endlessly they’ll set you free / Give you reason to believe / This empty place / I may seem unafraid / And I may seem unashamed / But I will be special k / Never let the summer catch you down / Never let your thoughts run free / Even when their numbers draw you out / Everything I want is free / ‘Til the end.” It’s optimistic, but not nauseatingly so. It’s pensive, but not brooding. In short, it’s impressive. It’s comes as especially impressive at a point when impressing was believed to be long past for Corgan and his newfound Pumpkins.
Three tracks into Oceania and it becomes harder and harder to believe that Corgan and Co. are all washed up. And when the moog begins to sound midway through “My Love Is Winter”, or when the synthesized opening to “One Diamond, One Heart” begins, you’ll most likely find yourself grooving along to an imitation band that is so incredibly reminiscent of that wondrous nostalgia you once lived for. There is something undeniably different here, but almost parallel different—a spinoff that doesn’t hold the brilliance of an original, but is charismatic in its own right. A more grown-up manifestation of the adolescent self-obsessed gloomy beginnings. If your life has progressed since the ‘90s, you’ll find yourself mimicking the same sentiments Corgan does when he sings: “I’m always on your side” on “One Diamond, One Heart” or “Fairy tales and time in whales / Substitutes for sin / It takes some life to find the light within” on “The Chimera”.
Corgan has matured significantly, and Oceania is the result of a deep reflection on past self-obsession without undermining those valid emotions by succumbing to the patronizing self-help suggestions touted by mainstream and clichéd health professionals. “Pale Horse” (one of the album’s best tunes) is a calming and pensive retort against medication. This isn’t the only instance of tackling issues of maturation without betraying everything you used to be. Corgan manages to deftly balance the intricacies and contradictions that come with “coming-of-age” without surrendering to defeatism.
Although Oceania will be plagued with comparisons of past efforts—a fair tactic given the Smashing Pumpkins relevance in the rock scene and unabashed public disbanding and rebanding—Corgan is impressively pulling this “new” version of the Pumpkins into an interesting direction. Oceania is definitely not without its faults, but with repeated listens and an honest approach to the metrics and themes Corgan’s hitting, this rhizomed Pumpkins reboot will dispel your notions that the Pumpkins can’t exist without its other three founding members. Oceania is also proof that integrity and quality of artistic output can overcome any negative impression.
// Notes from the Road
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