With Monuments to an Elegy, Billy Corgan has ushered the Smashing Pumpkins name into a new chapter. The parameters of this new chapter, however, are a little fuzzy and the ripple effects they may or may not trigger are anyone’s guess. For instance, despite Corgan description that Monuments was going to have “guitars, guitars, guitars and more guitars”, keyboards play a heavy role in the sound. To say that this is Corgan’s take on a synthpop album applies to certain songs but certainly not all of them. For some tracks, the keyboard is an ornamental crutch for the guitars. But on a song like “Run2me”, the keyboard is the song’s driving force with the guitars riding in the sidecar. This is just one example of the open-ended impression one gets from hearing Monuments to an Elegy over and over again, a brief album that can’t afford to be shy about its sound.
Monuments‘s brevity is something that fans of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness will need to adjust to: nine tracks with only one clearing the four-minute mark. In comparison to the rest of the Pumpkins’ discography, this album is truly a hit-it-and-quit-it release. Billy Corgan and Jeff Schroeder sew each song tight with no more of an introduction, musical interlude or outro than is absolutely needed. There are no ballads and no jams. Corgan’s forecast of multiple guitars is tempered pretty well, steering just around the inevitable bombast. Some of the songs have remnants of the band’s shoegaze past, though they’re not guaranteed to transport you back to the days of Gish or Siamese Dream. I find that the anointment of Monuments to an Elegy as a “return to form” is a little misleading. If a track like “Dorian” has a precursor, it’s either from 1998’s Adore or the 2005 Corgan solo album The Future Embrace, two releases that critics and the general public were a little too willing to bury under a pile of indifference.
Three elegiac singles propel Monuments — “Being Beige”, “One and All” and “Drum + Fife” (they actually make up a third of the product). All have that sleek, post-Mellon Collie glide that delivers just the right amount of atmosphere per rawk. “Being Beige” in particular stirs up an optimistic sound of a scaling keyboard figure over a bed made from a gently picked acoustic guitar. “The world’s on fire, so have you heard.” At one time, everyone associated Billy Corgan’s songs with doom and gloom. Nowadays, they don’t seem to fit in any neatly-defined slot on the mood spectrum. And as usual, he is able to come up with some catchy yet vague (at best) set of words on which to hang his musical hooks. “It goes on and on.” “We are, we are so young.” “Run to me, my lover strange.” “Don’t you ever be afraid.” “I feel alright, I feel alright tonight.” “Lover, you’re strange to me.” They’re for the vocal cadence sucker in all of us.
Billy Corgan’s career has gone through so many transitory phases that it’s become difficult to predict what will truly be pivotal and what’s just flirtation. But something is happening inside of Monuments to an Elegy. Perhaps it’s the fact that the Smashing Pumpkins are down to just Corgan and Schroeder with Mötley Crüe’s Tommy Lee there to just lend a hand. Maybe it’s the increasing incentive for artists to go it alone amid a floundering business model. In any case, the songs themselves have shrunk while the sound continues to expand outward. As old pieces of the Pumpkins sound fall away, new ones latch on for the ride. And it’s for these reasons and a myriad of others that the most devoted of the Pumpkins flock will probably look back on Monuments to an Elegy as a bridge to something else. And as far as bridges go, it’s mighty sturdy.