What Zeitgeist is really about, what all Pumpkins albums are really about, is Billy Corgan.
Billy Corgan is, on Zeitgeist, back to being a walking, living, breathing contradiction. For this, we should be grateful.
The Smashing Pumpkins were, of course, one of the defining bands of the so-called "Alternative Revolution" of the mid-'90s, a band blanketed in controversy, a band able to succeed despite it all. Corgan was always the driving force, one moment a de facto dictator (that would be Siamese Dream), the next moment revelling in the power of four separate forces coming together to create some wondrous musical achievements (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness); one moment kicking his best friend and bandmate Jimmy Chamberlin out of the band (Adore), the next moment proclaiming him the glue that holds the band together (Machina: The Machines of God).
As the Head Pumpkin, Corgan could go from tremendously generous acts of selflessness like an entire tour whose proceeds were donated to charity to some of the most inward, self-flagellating moments on record, as in tape-recorded therapy sessions integrated into songs. Twice. Perhaps the thing that infuriates those who would dismiss the entire Pumpkins catalog as a whole is the sheer impossibility of putting a finger on their driving force. As a Smashing Pumpkin, he was unpredictable to a fault, which, of course, was a large part of his charm to those indoctrinated into the cult of Corgan.
And then the Pumpkins died. D'Arcy Wretzky left first, but she was replaced by Melissa Auf der Maur, so nobody really cared. If anything, it was an upgrade. But then, James Iha said "screw you!," and Corgan said "screw you too!," and that was that. After that, Corgan tried to convince us he was happy, like really, really happy, and he put together Zwan, and he made happy music, and everyone was happy. So, of course, they broke up. Then Billy got all emo on us and took really odd pictures of himself in bad lighting and made the Depeche Mode album he's been threatening to make since he put "Eye" on the Lost Highway soundtrack. Again, like the Zwan experiment, it was a linear, one-dimensional persona with no contradictions or complications. This, however, was a persona that failed even as it got off the ground; Corgan's famous newspaper ad, proclaiming his desire to re-unite the Pumpkins, appeared the day TheFutureEmbrace, that ill-fated solo album, was released.
"I want my band back," he said, and with those five little words, the contradictions that make him the fascinating personality he is came rushing back. Even as he had devoted himself to his solo project, he wasn't fulfilled by it; even as he was finding strength in going it alone, he realized that his most successful creative moments were as a Pumpkin. It was clear what he had to do.
And so it goes, that even the release of the album is couched in his Pumpkin-inspired contradictions. The man who once insisted on releasing a double-album's worth of material for free on the internet was now offering not two, not three, but four different versions of his newest album depending on whether you buy it at Target, Best Buy, iTunes, or "other". Maybe he's doing it for the money. Who would we be to say?
The music, of course, is couched in the same sorts of infuriating contradictions. On one listen, it sounds like the prototypical Smashing Pumpkins album, a Smashing Pumpkins album that is designed to be a Smashing Pumpkins album, genetically engineered to sound exactly as one would expect the Smashing Pumpkins to sound. It doesn't really matter that James and D'Arcy aren't around, because everyone knows that Billy pretty much recorded Siamese Dream by himself, so it makes sense that Corgan and Chamberlin would make a record with the same basic sound. The huge driving guitars of "Doomsday Clock" immediately bring you into familiar territory, "Tarantula" combines the crunch of "Zero" with the tunefulness of "1979", anyone who enjoyed Pisces Iscariot's quiet little standout "Plume" will find something to love in the dirge-like "Bleeding the Orchid", there's a ten-ish-minute track that meanders in the middle before finding its way home, and so on. The elements are there. Chamberlin plays drums like he's hoping evolution will grant him an extra arm before he's dead. When Corgan says a line that looks on paper as cheesy as, say, "We are stars", or "let's fill these hours and kill desire", or even the constant repetition of the word "revolution", the fact that you know he means every word he says with every fiber of his being mitigates the cheese.
And yet despite all of this, Zeitgeist does manage to occasionally bust out of the old Pumpkin patch, a development due in no small part to the presence of Roy Thomas Baker, best known for his work with Queen. The sort of vocal layering Freddy Mercury would be proud of, chord progressions that convey triumph as often as they do disenchantment, and the use of marimbas and orchestras (and is that a gong in "Pomp and Circumstance"?) all indicate a willingness to go beyond the formula even as they spend most of their time sticking to it like glue.
From all of this is the frustrating (for the critic, at least) conclusion that we can glean basically nothing from the music as a whole. As such, we must look to the epic: "United States", a beastly number plopped right in the middle of the album.
The history of Smashing Pumpkins' epic-length material is a relatively short one: there's basically one great big bit of extended wankery punctuated by sharp songwriting on each album, and often, those bits define the albums that they inhabit. Adore wouldn't be half the album it is if not for "For Martha", the loving ode to Corgan's departed mother, and gosh, "Porcelina of the Vast Oceans" is an incredible song, isn't it? Still, those epics can be just as indicative of when Corgan's heart isn't in it -- "Silverfuck", despite being written at the height of Corgan's pop songwriting prowess, displayed a lack of soul that mars the album it inhabits to this day, while "Glass and the Ghost Children" mirrored "Silverfuck's" lack of focus by tying together two songs with shoelaces and scotch tape and tossing some therapy-speak in there to connect them. It was a pathetic attempt at a big statement, dragging the otherwise underappreciated Machina down into a near-insurmountable depth of conceit and hopelessness.
"United States" is every bit the classic "big moment" that a Pumpkins album truly needs to succeed on the most visceral of levels -- the guitar wankery actually sounds like it's leading toward something, it sounds like a whole piece, and every movement has its build, its development, and its climax -- by the time Corgan asks his detractors "Do you wanna watch me DIE" with all the venom he can muster on that final syllable, the listener's ears perk up, the hairs on the back of that listener's neck stand at attention, and the rest of the album suddenly sounds a little bit better.
Ostensibly, Zeitgeist is about our government, it's about our culture, it's about our fixation with the wrong things; there's a reason Paris Hilton adorns the cover for the "Tarantula" single, and it's not because Corgan and Chamberlin are big fans. There are plenty of swipes at the current American administration, and the title of "Doomsday Clock" should tell you all you need to know about where Corgan thinks we're headed should the current state of things be allowed to continue unabated. What Zeitgeist is really about, what all Pumpkins albums are really about, however, is Billy Corgan, and in a way, it seems Corgan himself has accepted that, and is now starting to revel in it. And as he revels in it, he loathes himself a little bit for doing so.
And it's one more contradiction -- One more beautiful, beautiful contradiction.