billy-corgan-uncoolest-of-rock-musicians-achieve-cool-status-with-ogilala
(Alpha Pan/Courtesy of the artist)

Will Billy Corgan, the Uncoolest of Rock Musicians, Achieve Cool Status with ‘Ogilala’?

Corgan's willingness to be himself regardless of the critical and social blowback he suffered for doing “unhip” things made him a singular weirdo within a ‘90s rock scene stuffed full of weirdos, loners, and ennui-saturated youth. To this day, and with this album, he continues to be himself. Are you cool with that?
William Patrick Corgan
Ogilala
BMG

There are a handful of things I believe unconditionally. First, with all due respect to the ’60s and ‘70s, the early ’90s supplied the most interesting collection of rock music ever recorded. Second, the fashion choices that accompanied that era’s musical currents are not nearly as alluring as they appeared in real time. Third, William Patrick Corgan is exactly who he says he is, an unassailable rock genius who fronted (and continues to front) one of the most underappreciated bands of all time. In recent years, Corgan has become so adept at not only assessing his own musical legacy, but articulating exactly what made other rock musicians worthy of remembrance, that when he now says things like “For as long as I can remember, the delineation point between songs I wrote for myself and songs I’d pen for whatever band was something I couldn’t explain”, I find myself inclined to agree with him — even if the expressed sentiment leaves me more confused than I initially was. Sometimes you just have to trust those who excel in their professions.

Besides being one of the most Corgan-esque statements ever recorded for perpetuity — is there another rock icon who would casually use the word “delineation” while describing his or her songwriting process? — the aforementioned sentence was part of an announcement previewing Ogilala, Corgan’s second solo-album and a piece of work that seems designed to address one of the key issues that has dogged Corgan throughout his career as a recording artist: a penchant for dabbling in elaborate, some would say superfluous, postproduction techniques. Ogilala, which hit record stores shelves and digital music platforms today, has been promoted as collection of spare, stripped back songs that, according to Corgan, “want little in the way of adornment.” The album was recorded under the auspices of super producer/reclusive Zen master Rick Rubin, and Corgan has suggested Rubin played an integral role in crafting its ostensibly austere sound.

The notion of a Corgan album that doesn’t feature myriad overdubs and/or impassioned forays into electronica can, upon initial consideration, seem antithetical to everything the former alt-rock poster child strove to achieve on-record as the chief songwriter and founding member of the Smashing Pumpkins, and one can’t help but interpret Corgan’s decision to forgo the sonic maximalism found on much of his past work as a sly middle-finger to the community of myopic critics who have long used the Pumpkins’ intricate sounding records and rococo iconography as an excuse to unfairly marginalize Corgan’s unique talents and ignore the band’s indelible contributions to the alternative rock scene of the early ‘90s — as well as rock music in general. In the run-up to the release of Ogilala, Corgan promised the album would offer fans and critics alike a taste of his musical prowess reduced to its bare essentials, a decision that, given Corgan’s history and the way his past work has been described in the press, seems like a conscious attempt to shift the prevailing narrative arc of his career.

To fully understand the potential significance of Corgan’s (alleged) renunciation of the intricate production values that have always been a hallmark of his recording process, you must first understand how Corgan has long been perceived within the critical community. When he broke onto the national music scene in the early ’90s as the lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter — not to mention chief creative force — of the Chicago-based alternative rock group the Smashing Pumpkins, Corgan struck many earnest acolytes of the burgeoning alt-rock scene as a quintessential embodiment of musical ideas and personal qualities that distinguished it from the synth pop and lascivious hair metal that had flourished in the ‘80s — as well as the underground hardcore scene which served as the anti-commercial counterbalances to the Poisons and Guns ‘N Roses of the arena rock world. Like their grunge contemporaries, the Pumpkins amalgamated elements of classic rock, heavy metal, and punk — a Rolling Stone review of the band’s debut albums Gish said the music conjured “visions of Jimi Hendrix sitting in with the Stooges” — then filtered the resulting mixture through an overarching aesthetic of vigorous self-deprecation, gloomy introspection, and welcome despair.

As Kyle Anderson notes in Accidental Revolution: The Story of Grunge, Corgan fit the archetypal description of “early-nineties front man” as well, if not better, than Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder. The Pumpkins’ early music utilizes all the representative sonic signifiers of the ‘90s grunge/alternative scene: loud/quiet dynamics, languorous tempos, glum ambience. Fans of the genre embraced the Pumpkins, hence the group’s stronger than average record sales and ubiquity on alternative and college radio stations. Sub Pop — the godfather label of grunge — released one of the band’s early singles. And the annual alternative tour Lollapalooza eagerly welcomed the Pumpkins as headliners in the summer of 1994. All of these achievements serve as irrefutable proof that the Pumpkins were one the cornerstone bands of ‘90s alternative rock.

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Despite these accomplishments — and the fact that, contrary to Corgan’s claims otherwise, the band’s work received mostly positive reviews from mainstream and just-outside-the mainstream press outlets — the Pumpkins were always trailed by a vague, yet pervasive media narrative questioning their artistic credibility and the legitimacy of their claim to the “alternative” label. This narrative partially stemmed from the contempt a handful of alt-rock insiders like Steve Albini, Bob Mould, and Kim Gorton — and much later on Sheryl Osborne — held for Corgan. (Each of those individuals excoriated the band and/or Corgan on the record.) It also partially stemmed from critics’ unwillingness to write about the Pumpkins without reserving at least a few sentences and/or paragraphs for leveling odd potshots at the band in general and Corgan in particular. As acclaimed rock critic Steven Hayden noted in his book Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, “Every article about the band addressed the Pumpkins’ ‘credibility issues’ and inherent lack of coolness.” The classic example of this sort of writing is Michael Azerrad’s profile of the band for the December 1994 issue of Spin magazine, an article that ostensibly celebrates the Pumpkins as the magazine’s choice for artist of the year but spends a curious amount of effort insinuating Corgan was nothing more than a lame poseur and Cobain wannabe.

Why so many critics felt the need to dress down Corgan and his bandmates even as they begrudgingly acknowledged the Pumpkins musical talent and popularity with alternative music fans is a difficult question to answer definitively. Some would say the press corps’ unwillingness to grant Corgan the same cool kid status as mainstream icons like Cobain, or even critical darlings like Steven Malkmus, was simply the result of his alleged habit of acting like a self-aggrandizing asshole. The Pumpkins front man certainly had no qualms about giving himself a lion’s share of the credit for his band’s success; he had a habit of going on the record with quotes like “I took a drummer who didn’t even know what alternative music was and took two people who could barely play their instruments and made a band. That’s not to say they didn’t do anything, but I created something beyond the sum of its parts.” Such petulantly toned opinions did not ingratiate Corgan with journalists who saw the ethos of the ‘90s alternative music scene a necessary correction to the egomaniacal rock star paradigm that had ruled the roost in the previous decade. (Of course, Corgan also went on record at least once saying drummer Jimmy Chamberlain was the best musician in the group, proving he was capable of generously appraising his bandmates.)

But assholery in rock music was far from a novel concept by the time Corgan became famous, and so it seems unlikely that the press’ condescending treatment of the Pumpkins — as well as the untrammeled ire directed at the group by the Mould’s, Albini’s, and Gordon’s of the alt-rock world — is not the reason why so many people agreed that the Pumpkins didn’t possess the right brand of alternative cool. It seems much more likely that the Pumpkins were always treated like outsiders looking in because unlike so many of their alt-rock peers, they had no compunction about going into the recording studio and using elaborate overdubs and other extensive post-production techniques to infuse their raucous, grungy and painfully confessionalsongs with the sonic polish and technical sensibilities of art and prog rockers.

The ‘90s were a time when the album-oriented rock (AOR) and art rock albums that had been so popular in the ’70s came to be considered the nadir of the rock tradition, an unfortunate digression into overly pretentious waters and a digression for which early punk music served as a much-needed antidote. It’s safe to say that most of the music journalists working in the ‘90s hailed from the Lester Bangs school of criticism, which to this day requires its disciples to revile any rock that aspires to the realm of art while celebrating any and all bands that strictly adhere to the form’s origin as a simple, stripped-down, often sloppy expression of youthful rebelliousness. (These sorts of critics are essentially the music community’s version of Constitutional Originalists and Bangs is their Antonin Scalia.)

Critics at the time venerated the simplicity of punk and the callous indifference of indie musicians who didn’t care whether they knew how to play their instruments or sing in tune. They mischaracterized 1991 as the “year punk broke” and elevated bands like Pavement and Fugazi to the status of cult heroes, all while rolling their eyes at the Pumpkins’ attempts to, in the words of Corgan, treat each of their albums as “a permanent work of art”. (Any misguided fools who think Nirvana’s music was just punk rock, man, and doesn’t owe significant creative debts to the ‘70s arena acts so many ’90s rock journalists and overtly hipsterish indie insiders loved to savage should take a moment to read Cobain’s 1994 interview with David Fricke in which the doyen of grunge professes his lasting affection for anti-punk albums like Back in Black, Led Zeppelin II, and Aerosmith’s Rocks but somehow neglects to mention Black Flag. Or go find the Melody Maker interview in which Cobain cites un-punk musical forces like King Crimson’s Robert Fripp and electronic music producer Brian Eno as significant influences.)

Truth be told, slickly produced albums comprised a significant portion the ‘90s alt-rock’s canon, which as Leslie Haynsworth argues throughout her essay,“Alternative” Music and the Oppositional Potential of Generation X Culture”, always sought to denounce established tastes and expose the emptiness of mainstream material values from within the corporate system as opposed to outside of it. As John Amen noted in PopMatters last September, the songs on Nirvana’s influential album Nevermind bear “production values characteristic of the previous decade. The fundamental rawness of the material and delivery are frequently suppressed rather than complemented by what sound to me like compression, chorus, and mixing techniques reminiscent of late ‘70s / early ‘80s New Wave, or mid- to late ‘80s hard-rock recordings.” While Nirvana’s follow-up album In Utero achieved the sort raw and abrasive sound long found on less commercially viable records, Amen’s observations about the sonic textures of Nevermind can certainly be applied to just about every recording made by alternative groups like Pearl Jam Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains. Even bands like REM, who critics lovingly praised for their “authentic” repudiation of the commercial mainstream, regularly embraced the sort of pop hooks that would make Madonna blush with envy.

All of which is another way of saying that the Pumpkins’ willingness to indulge Corgan’s attachment to high-gloss production values was not so out of step with then-vogue ideas about what alternative rock should sound like, though Corgan certainly went further than any of his peers in using the studio to amplify his band’s sonic signature and never hid his affection for the vulgarities of ‘70s prog rock or the veins of performance art that informed so many of those bands stage shows. Because Corgan was so upfront about his dislike of sloppy punk music — he once told music critic Jim DeRogatis “I always had a problem with a lot of the punk ethic, because there’s more of an art to the presentation” — and his desire to make epochal defining art records — he once previewed the band’s massive double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by describing it as The Wall for Generation X — that it became easy for punk loving critics to pigeonhole Corgan as an unfortunate example of AOR’s lingering influence. (Whether or not Mellon Collie is The Wall for Xers remains up for debate. But it should be noted that just as The Wall’s most iconic song expresses a core principle of early Baby Boomer culture — mainstream society’s stodgy mores and debilitating social structures are the enemy of freedom and self-expression — Mellon Collie’s first single speaks to the sensibilities most associated with Generation X and early ‘90s youth culture: ineffectual rage, disgust with the artifice of postmodern society, apathy stemming from the realization that you were powerless to impact the course taken by mainstream institutions.)

What these small-minded critics, as well as the indie insiders who similarly disliked the Pumpkins for self-identifying as artists, either failed to realize or willfully ignored is that while Corgan and his bandmates certainly viewed the recording studio as a useful tool for bringing specific, often baroque sonic ambitions to fruition, the band was not the sort of lame rock outfit that had to rely on post-production wizardry as a crutch. Just about every song the Pumpkins ever recorded, from the guitar rock of Gish all the way through the electronica of Adore, sounds just as compelling when rendered sparsely and/or acoustically. (How I would relish listening to Corgan and Mike Garson play the entire Pumpkins oeuvre on nothing but an acoustic guitar and keyboard.) On record, the band shares much in common with detail-oriented art rockers, but their music is no less interesting when stripped to its bare essentials. The Pumpkins also recorded a number of lo-fi B-sides and simple acoustic tracks that, when compiled into a single playlist, sound far more interesting than any album Pavement released, so there’s no question the band was capable of working in a minimalist style as well if not better than many of their alt-rock contemporaries. What made the Pumpkins such a unique quartet is they possessed an artistic vision akin to Yes but could channel the immediacy of a garage band on cue, a fact that deflates any attempt to categorize the band as a strictly AOR act incapable of communing with rock music’s simple, caustic roots.

What Corgan demonstrated from the very get-go of his career was a singular unwillingness to pay lip service to punk orthodoxy, even though aligning oneself with the suddenly modish punk tradition was the savviest PR move a band could make post-1991. He readily admitted that his musical heroes were less “edgy” artists, like the spunky metalheads in Van Halen and the dorky prog rockers of Rush (and this was back before liking Rush became cool). Chicago’s Mancow Morning Show href=”https://shadybrook.wordpress.com/2015/07/12/nirvanas-smells-like-teen-spirit-sounds-like-bostons-more-than-a-feeling-and-dancing-tony-hodgkinson/”>signature riffs, but wasn’t too insecure to sing their praises, even when doing so was considered profoundly uncool by the alternative community at large. Corgan always self-identified as an alternative musician and was confident enough in his convictions to slam the scene’s endemic insularity — an insularity that seemed designed to limit eclectic artistic statements rather than empower them. This willingness to be himself regardless of the critical and social blowback he suffered for doing “unhip” things like admitting a fondness for Judas Priest was what made Corgan a singular weirdo within a ‘90s rock scene stuffed full of weirdos, loners, and ennui- saturated youth. And if it’s not already clear from my writing, I wholeheartedly believe that’s a good and admirable quality.

The David Foster Wallace of ‘90s Alt-rock

No sane literature buff ever mourned David Foster Wallace’s refusal to mimic the terse prose of Earnest Hemingway; no sensible cineaste ever argued that Alfred Hitchcock’s fascination with blonds and birds crippled his ability to generate suspense.

Here’s another way to think about Billy Corgan: He was the David Foster Wallace of ‘90s alt-rock.

Though his preferred tool for self-expression was a typewriter as opposed to an electric guitar, Wallace was a consummate ‘90s artist, and not just because his mournful countenance and uncomfortable relationship with success squarely aligned him with Cobain and other dour Gen X dudes. Infinite Jest, the novel that cemented Wallace’s reputation as a literary genius, focuses on so many recurrent themes of that decade’s art and culture — like the idea of a not-so-distant-future where corporations possess cartoonish levels of power. As fellow author Tom Bissel correctly noted in The New York Times, the book exists very much “within the early to mid-1990s as firmly and emblematically as ‘The Simpsons’ and grunge music.” The title of another Times dubbed Infinite Jest “The Grunge American Novel, and its author, journalist Frank Bruni, argued that “Wallace’s work spoke both to this generation’s [Xers] shtick and to its soul.”

Wallace’s acclaimed non-fiction essays on subjects as dissimilar as a vacation on a luxury Caribbean cruise ship and a visit to the Illinois State Fair combine moments of genuine empathy for common folk Wallace otherwise colors in arch tones with the sort of sardonic detachment so characteristic of his generation’s artistic tenor. Wallace, like so many other of musicians and writers who first made a name for themselves in the 20th century’s final decade, always exhibited a keen hunger for personal authenticity; his desire to rend the truly authentic elements of postmodern life from the surrounding artifice was a hallmark of both his voice and his generation’s collective identity.

Despite these shared characteristics, what separated Wallace’s work from that of so many of his contemporaries was that it derived its power and appeal from a sumptuous style of writing that was the complete opposite of the pared down style reminiscent of so much ‘90s literature produced by Gen X authors. Many of the other epoch defining books from that decade — Douglas Coupland’s Generation X: Tales From an Accelerated Culture, Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club — feature prose close in tone and construction to Earnest Hemingway’s direct style of writing. Wallace wrote in the exact opposite manner, indulging his unparalleled talent as a pure crafter of language and inclination for prolixity to create long, elaborate books filled with long, elaborate sentences. For Wallace, his style was as important as his substance, even if he spent a good part of his career selling interviewers on the degree to which he valued honest to goodness sincerity.

Nearly everything Wallace ever published could, in theory, have been made shorter and utilized less complicated language without sacrificing meaning or clarity or obfuscating the sincerity of the artist’s intent. But Wallace consistently refused to limit his word count or the ambitions of his vision. He never wrote just one sentence when three sentences were possible, never suppressed a desire to explore tangents whose degrees of relevance varied wildly, never hesitated to deploy words that could send even the most erudite scholars of language scrambling for dictionaries. He examined every idea and theme in exhaustive detail, from every possible angle. Restraint may have been the only word absent from his gargantuan vocabulary.

Wallace’s grandiloquence stood in stark opposition to the work of other notable ‘90s Gen X authors as well as the general aesthetic much of that generation’s art had come to adopt. (Quintessential Xer films like Slacker (1991) and Clerks (1994) embraced low-key production values, direct presentations of plot and characters, and technically unimpressive cinematography, i.e., the opposite of artistic opulence.) But that didn’t prevent both his fiction and non-fiction writing from taking their rightful places in that era’s canon. Wallace personified so many of the hallmarks of his generation’s disposition — a fascination and fear of irony, an overpowering desire to connect with that which is truly genuine, a congenital habit of referential noting — that it was impossible to typecast him as a writer who had no tangible connection to the culture surrounding him. By adopting such an opulent style of prose, Wallace expanded the aesthetic scope of Gen X literature without abandoning its tacit ethos or underlying thematic qualities.

Corgan is (probably) not as gifted a songwriter as Wallace was a writer, but he always operated in a similar vein, which is to say a grandiloquence of vision and execution was one of the defining components of his work, even though his music was thematically similar to that of his peers. Corgan routinely wrote songs that were significantly longer than those produced by other alt-rock bands, and the Pumpkins released albums that burst at the seams with material. Like Wallace, he showed little interest in restraining his artistic tendencies. (The sheer number of B-sides and unreleased material the Pumpkins recorded during the ‘90s gives a sense of what an effortless songwriter Corgan was.) Lyrically speaking, Corgan penned the most extravagant lyrics of the alternative era, and his desire to express himself through ostentatious verbal conceits became a trademark of the Smashing Pumpkins music.

Not all critics warmed to Corgan’s elaborate expressions of personal malaise; more than a fair share dismissed his doleful lyrics as the type of pablum emo teens mistake for earth shattering poetry. It’s a complaint I’ve never understood, considering most rock writing bends towards the insipid rather than the profound. “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones is nothing more than unhinged hormonal yearnings repeated ad nauseam; Lou Reed’s “Andy’s Chest” sounds like the ravings of a person who spends Saturday nights taking peyote in the wilderness, an impressive accomplishment from a creative standpoint, considering it’s commonly assumed Reed never set foot outside of New York’s five boroughs long enough to see the wilderness firsthand, but still a far cry from Shakespeare. So why pick on Corgan’s lyric writing? Especially since he evoked feelings prevalent within his generation and similar to those expressed by his peers, albeit in more bombastic manners.

There’s a case to be made that Corgan was actually the most gifted lyric writer of the ‘90s. The Workers Online wrote that the lyric “the killer in me is the killer in you” from the Pumpkins song “Disarm” succinctly described what life in a “post Cold War reality” felt like — a notion that may or may not be true but certainly qualifies as the most interesting thing ever published in the Workers Online. Rock critic Steve Morse claimed the chorus to “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, in which Corgan laments “Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage” stood as a “generational rant”, and one imagines that Cobain would have identified with that sentiment even if he would have chosen to express it differently. The album title Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness functions as a sort of longwinded shorthand for Gen Xers general opinion about life.

Corgan’s grandiosity certainly differentiated him from his alt-rock peers — even if he used that atypical sense of style to express and reflect the same cult of despair fellow bands like Nirvana and other ‘90s artists constantly sought to address. But Corgan was far from a complete outlier. His artistic sensibilities shared much in common with that of Wallace, and it’s safe to say that Wallace was the closest analogue Corgan had throughout the peak of his career.

* * *

There is, I must admit, a small part of me that (sort of) understands the ingrained dislike so many critics harbor for Corgan’s longstanding commitment to sonic embellishment. As a dedicated fan of the Smashing Pumpkins, I remain enthralled to the group’s music and the way it so perfectly encapsulates the masochistic abjection and overpowering Weltschmerz — as well as the moments when hope for transcendence briefly eclipsed easier to come by pessimism — that pervaded early ‘90s culture. (Before the Hansons and NSyncs of the world came along and crushed everyone’s spirit with their unrestrained positivity. Ugh.)

And yet there have been times when I’ve listened to certain Pumpkins songs and found myself wondering whether or not the little flourishes Corgan and his bandmates added to the final cuts augment the power of the music or detract from it. The soaring strings on “Tonight, Tonight” certainly lend that song a rare musical grandeur; yet there’s no question the stripped-down version, featuring just the members of the band on their instruments, possesses a propulsive appeal that is subsequently lost amidst the orchestration — the almost jaunty drumming of Jimmy Chamberlain would have been worth the price of admission alone. “Spaceboy”, an emotionally poignant song Corgan wrote about his younger brother, uses strings and a mellotron to convey a haunting mixture of love and sadness. But there’s an organic appeal to the acoustic version, in which James Iha’s twangy slide guitar rises to the forefront of the mix and adds a supremely weird and satisfying counterbalance to the heavily emotive lyrics.

These are two instances where it’s difficult to determine whether Corgan and his bandmates (as well as the producers with whom they collaborated) made the right call in deciding more is always better when it comes to how the finished cut of a rock song sounds. The carefully produced final versions of each of those songs aren’t bad; on the contrary, each tune listed above is a fine piece of music. But they might have resonated just as deeply with the Pumpkins audience had Corgan just let them out into the world in their most basic form. (It must also be pointed out that the Machina albums represent the moment when Corgan’s love of postproduction finally got the better of him and crushed the natural quality of the songs on those albums. It wasn’t that Corgan had lost his touch a songwriter — the acoustic demos show a crafter of melody in full form — it’s just the embellishments present on the final cuts were simply too much; they exerted a deadening effect and resulted in the first Pumpkins albums that can legitimately be described as tiresome.)

Which brings us back to Ogilala. My excitement over the release of this album dates all the way back to January 2017, when Corgan teased the then-unnamed collaboration with Rick Rubin on Chicago’s Mancow Morning Show, saying “He (Rubin) got me to kind of strip away a lot of the stuff I would normally do, and really get down to the simplest part of the songs and music.” This is something I had long wanted to hear. I’d been waiting for years for Corgan to release a no-frills collection of songs, not because I thought he needed to prove he could work in this fashion but because I wanted him to show the other 99 percent of rock music fans — the ones who, unlike me, don’t spend oodles of time rummaging through the Smashing Pumpkins catalogue of B-sides and rarities searching for their most sparse cuts — that he’s always been capable of forgoing sonic enhancement, even if he’s never chosen to showcase this side of his artistic capacity on record.

McCartney-esque, Beautiful Rock Melodies

“Half-Life of an Autodidact” sounds like a paean to the beauty of violins.

Ogilala, however, doesn’t deliver on this promise. The album is an occasionally interesting piece of music that, in one sense, stands as yet another testament to Corgan’s McCartney-esque facility at writing beautiful rock melodies. But for an album that has been specifically advertised as a collection of tracks that “want little in the way of adornment”, there’s a surprising amount of adornment present throughout the entire affair. Nine of the album’s 11 songs prominently feature strings and/or synths — the sort of additions Corgan was supposed to be avoiding with this entry into his musical canon — and these auxiliary elements end-up muddying the sound and creating a distracting effect for the listener.

Aeronaut”, which is Ogilala’s strongest song and first single, demonstrates this conundrum. It starts out with Corgan’s vocals and a beautiful, if occasionally lumbering, piano. But before the song is even close to halfway over, the string section kicks in and the stark, just-a-musician-and-his-instrument feeling vanishes. (One of the refrains in “Aeronaut” says “lovers won’t you mourn me with me”, beautifully reflecting the central thematic tension Corgan has addressed throughout his career: an almost childlike yearning to be surrounded by love and happiness that’s hamstrung by the inability to escape life’s morose elements.) “The Spaniards”, the second track released prior to the album’s drop date, serves as an even better example. The extremely heavy synths present in the mix make it easy to mistake the song as a lost track off Adore, the Pumpkins electronica and goth-tinged follow-up to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.

And so it goes for most of the album. Like “The Spaniards”, “Amarinthe” is drowned in synths. “Shiloh”, the album’s second to last song and one of two tracks that share a name with an infamous Civil War battle, starts with a compelling chord progression and Corgan’s atypically beautiful singing voice. But then strings and occasional plinks of an electric guitar rise to the foreground of the mix and become the sonic focal point. “Half-Life of an Autodidact” sounds like a paean to the beauty of violins. “Zowie” and “The Long Goodbye” are the only two tracks that noticeably lack any embellishments, thus providing the listener with a few thankful breaks.

Rather than augment the emotive power of the songs, the strings and synths on this album divert attention from what should be the center of interest: Corgan’s songwriting and vocals. (The quality of the vocals is one of the more interesting aspects of Ogilala; there’s a weird reverb quality to most of them, almost as if the engineers recorded Corgan while he was singing from a suspended platform inside the world’s most cavernous, echo inducing concert call. It’s not a bad effect, per se, but his vocals certainly sound more celestial than anything he’s recorded in the past.)

What’s interesting about Corgan’s body of work is that while so many critics have endlessly carped about the overdubbing present on those early Pumpkins albums — the producer Flood who worked with Pumpkins on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness allegedly referred to the band’s recording technique as the “Pumpkin guitar overdub army” — credit has to at least be given to the producers of those albums for combining the numerous guitar tracks and other instruments into textured walls of sound, in which no one instrument unnecessarily overrides the others. Those walls of sounds always drew listeners in while evoking distinct emotional states. A significant number of Corgan’s past songs stand as examples of sums that are greater than the whole of their parts. This is not the case with Ogilala. The studio additions on this album stand on their own, rather than as parts of a whole, and the result is a record that would have been much stronger had it adhered to its own hype and just stuck to the basics.

The truth about Ogilala is there’s a significant gap between what the album’s marketing materials claim it is and what the album actually is. Pumpkins fans who have long relished the opportunity to hear Corgan channel his inner Elliott Smith will (probably) be disappointed. This is not in any ways shape or form an austere sounding record. It’s emblematic of Corgan’s long evident belief that when it comes to studio albums, more is always better. It may not duplicate sonic maximalism of Siamese Dream or even TheFutureEmbrace, but it cannot in any way shape or form be legitimately described as “stripped-down”. These songs may have wanted little in the way of adornment, but that didn’t prevent them from receiving plenty, and while Rubin, not Corgan, may not have been the one sitting in the control booth, dictating the exact points where synths and strings would kick-in, the result is still the same. Ogilala evinces Corgan’s continued affection for grandiose sounding records and shows that, despite all the pre-release talk to the contrary, he is not ready to renounce his fondness for studio gloss.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and certainly isn’t meant to suggest that Corgan has spent his career going the AC/DC route by refusing to ever change or even slightly alter his sound. On the contrary, Corgan has always demonstrated a willingness — some might say need — to explore new sub-genres of rock while paying homage to the various influences that helped shape him as a musician. The grungy psychedelia of Gish and Siamese Dream sounds distinct from the prog-metal-dream pop fantasia of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the gothic electronica of Adore, and the overbearing metal rock of the Machina albums. Even the most recent incarnation of the Smashing Pumpkins has proven Corgan remains unwilling to cloister himself in the same sonic corner. Zeitgeist, Oceania, and Monuments to an Elegy — the three Pumpkins albums released since the band reformed — all have a sound they can call their own.

But the one line of continuity present throughout Corgan’s career has been his ongoing dedication to studio embellishments. Ogilala simply confirms this. Corgan and Rubin’s decision not to limit themselves to the absolute basics will compromise the record’s ability to change the narrative about Corgan’s proclivities as a recording artist, and at the end of the day that’s more than okay. No sane literature buff ever mourned David Foster Wallace’s refusal to mimic the terse prose of Earnest Hemingway; no sensible cineaste ever argued that Alfred Hitchcock’s fascination with blonds and birds crippled his ability to generate suspense. Just about every great artist has one or two compulsory tendencies they cannot rid themselves of, and this predicament speaks to a more universal human foible, which is that some of our habits die hard while others never do.

* * *

I’ve admittedly spent a ridiculous amount of time in recent years thinking and writing about Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins for reasons that have, at times, been unclear even to me. There’s no question I want this songwriter and the band he’s spent most of his career fronting to enjoy a reputation as one of the most remarkable creative forces in the history of rock music, because I truly believe Corgan’s body of work represents some of the most dynamic and diverse rock music ever pressed into vinyl and lasered into plastic. But more importantly, I believe Corgan has never been fully credited for doing something unique and poignant within the history of rock music: he achieved icon status without every coming close to being considered cool.

On the surface, this may not sound like a particularly profound accomplishment, but trust me when I say that it is. Since its inception, rock music has not only derived much of its appeal from the fact that it was “cool”, it’s unique quality as an art form is that it’s leading practitioners have always been essentially synonymous with the very concept of “cool”. Rock was never as sophisticated as classical music, as technically inventive as jazz, or as profoundly connected to the American experience as the blues. It initially appealed to mainstream audiences because it was cool and subversive at a time when the stodgy culture of Eisenhower’s America was in desperate need of a dose of hipness, and that template has stuck ever since.

Early flans flocked to Chuck Berry and Elvis because these were performers who distilled qualities like a rebellious rejection of the status quo, an edge of danger, and oodles of sex appeal into unique, irresistible personas. The British bands that followed certainly made good music, but stars like John Lennon and Mick Jagger were first and foremost symbols of coolness and sexuality. From that point on, rock stars were essentially just cool individuals who could sing and/or play guitar better than your average Joe. Jim Morrison was cool, Jimi Hendrix was cool, Pete Townshend was cool, Janis Joplin was cool. People love to pretend that Lou Reed was a musical genius, even though the essence of his appeal always sprung from the fact that he looked ridiculously cool in sunglasses, with a guitar strapped around his body and successfully cultivated the misogynistic/badass persona that has long been equated with male coolness. David Bowie was so cool he made androgyny credible. Bruce Springsteen made working class politics cool. Axl Rose and Bret Michaels made hairspray cool. Just about every iconic rock star’s appeal has, on some level, derived from his or her intrinsic coolness. Even geek rockers from David Byrne to Michael Stipe to Rivers Cuomo have never been able to fully suppress their natural coolness, despite burying it under layers upon layers of dorky covering — they’re not popular because they’re uncool, they’re popular because they somehow make looking uncool seem cool.

This is where Billy Corgan differs significantly from his peers. Corgan has never been cool. Never. He was always too tall, too gangly, too pale, and just so obviously lacking the ineffable qualities that make a person cool. He wasn’t cool in the early ‘90s when he rocked out on MTV in a paisley shirt and brown pants and still wasn’t cool two years later when he shaved his head and started wearing silver pants everywhere he went. He certainly wasn’t cool when he mimed Nosferatu in the late ‘90s and early ’00s or when he wore a very unfortunate cowboy hat in the “Perfect” video and during an appearance on Charlie Rose. Nothing he does has ever been cool. Maybe coolness is simply something he doesn’t care about. Or maybe he’s never been hip enough to realize that eight-hours of ambient music inspired by Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha is not cool and that appearing on Infowars is profoundly uncool (and possibly unhinged). Some artists are so innately cool they can turn formerly uncool things into desirable commodities, e.g., those nerd rockers referenced in the previous paragraph. Not Corgan. As New York Times pop music critic Jon Pareles observed in 1998, “Mr. Corgan himself is a decidedly unimposing presence, perhaps the geekiest rocker ever to become a pop idol.” (And Pareles certainly knows a thing or two about being uncool.)

In some respect, the early ‘90s alternative rock scene that Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins were such integral parts of staked its appeal on implying that cool was a meretricious trait not worthy of pursuit or admiration. Alt-rockers positioned themselves as the complete opposite of the ‘80s rocks who came before them: uncool losers who hated themselves and saw the world and their own futures through an unbelievably pessimistic prism of inescapable malaise. They dressed down and shambled about, doing everything they could to avoid looking like they wanted to be cool. But that didn’t prevent fans from idolizing many of them because, in spite of their vehement protests to the contrary, most of the scene’s founding members were still inherently cool. Kurt Cobain was cool in spite of, or perhaps, considering the times, because he seemed constantly burdened by overpowering melancholy and a lingering fear of personal fraudulence. Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell were cool with their “we’re not different than anybody else even though we front famous rock bands” personas. Even Thom Yorke was cool, in a futuristic, David Duchovny as Mulder in the X-Files sort of way.

But not Corgan. As someone who lived through that era I can say with confidence that while lots of music fans bought Smashing Pumpkins records and devoured them with unbridled enthusiasm, not a single person from that era ever got up in the morning and thought to his or herself, “I want to dress like Billy Corgan because that guy’s cool.” His success and the success of his band were based entirely on his skills as a songwriter and their work as musicians. And, again, I wholeheartedly believe that’s a good and admirable quality. Fellow alt-rock gods like Cobain and Cornell certainly had oodles of talent and wrote excellent music. But their paths to cultural influence were always less fraught with peril because their inborn coolness made life that much easier for them. Corgan achieved icon status despite his lack of coolness, in a medium where coolness is the most valuable asset a person can have. He succeeded even though the odds were stacked against him.

I don’t know if Ogilala will be considered cool by fans and music critics. I don’t know whether this collection of ethereal rock ballads has any chance of being deemed hip in the fractured, music landscape of 2017. I don’t know if fans want new albums to be accompanied by silent films or whether Ogilala’s Native American iconography will get the proverbial nod of approval from the tastemakers of hip. (Another way to think about Billy Corgan is that he’s a great mainstream artist who desperately wants to be a great avant-garde artist, even though his attempts throughout the years to produce interesting avant-garde work have either been bad and not avant-garde enough https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOG3eus4ZSo — or simply bad https://consequenceofsound.net/2014/03/billy-corgan-performed-an-eight-hour-concert-about-the-siddhartha-and-lived-to-see-another-day/). I certainly have no idea whether Corgan himself will come across as cool as he returns to limelight (and continues to hint at a possible reunion of the original Smashing Pumpkins lineup). Corgan has never been a cool artist. Ogilala probably won’t change that. But this album, like everything Corgan has made in the past, isn’t a play for coolness. It’s an example of a musician making the sort of music he wants to make and feels compelled to make — whether he knows that or not.

That may not be cool. But it’s certainly interesting and possibly meaningful. The same can be said of Corgan’s entire career.

Kevin Craft is the author of Grunge, Nerds, and Gastropubs: A Mass Culture Odyssey (Amazon, 2015). He’s contributed to, and Miami.com.

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