The Smashing Pumpkins

Zeitgeist

(Reprise; 2007)

By Christopher Alexander | 18 October 2007

Lester Bangs couldn't handle the Rolling Stones. Bangs was never a dispassionate critic anyway, but when the subject was Mick and Keith, any pretense of detachment flew out the window, and with it his surgical insight and analysis. That may be why I love his work on the band so much. Read in chronological order (as one can in the 2003 collection Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Tastes), one can see in Bangs not so much a disillusionment, but rather a steadfast refusal to bring truth to his illusions. They remain the gods that saved his life when he was fourteen, and as they continue to make bad record after bad record, it's not so much their own reputation they are sullying, but his own memory. And that's why he's pissed off, and it's no small wonder: Bangs' work on the Stones is an example of what happens when your private obsessions no longer correspond to cultural ones; a sustained note of fear that as your avatars and heroes become irrelevant, so do you.

But of course he was always a good writer, even when he wasn't a good critic, and he knew enough to recognize his shortcomings. "If you think I'm going to actually review It's Only Rock N' Roll," he wrote in 1974, "then you are crazy. But I am going to swim in it." And if anyone wants to get a succinct, blow by blow account of the new Smashing Pumpkins album, they're in the wrong place. Let's leave alone the fact that the band sold zillions of records in the '90s. Depending on who you are, they were either the paramount example of moral bankruptcy and cooption of Alternative Rock -- the flashpoint where a smattering of vaguely interesting and successful bands became a wildly marketable format, with Billy Corgan and his band acting as corporate funded, lip-stick'd swine -- or they saved your life, providing you with doors to anything from indie rock, shoegaze, post hardcore and heavy metal, or else just another map of your adolescence, a way to imbue the banalities of your teenage years with cinematic grandeur. Whether the latter is patently ridiculous is also totally irrelevant: it applies to enough of us to make it matter. When the object of your own private obsessions sells ten million copies of something, it necessarily becomes a public one. This involves a lot of unpacking. Get comfortable.

Of course, I recognize that you're busy, and, much like the reviewer, may even be embarrassed at expending any kind of mental energy on such a subject. You needn't look any further than the citation, which I will repeat here:

Zeitgeist is Corgan as rock n' roll trickster, cramming his songs with as much harmonies, stops and starts, chromatic riffs, gee-whiz production gimmicks and loud guitars as he can to mask a crop of fairly weak hooks. In spite of the anticipation, he has made a fairly ordinary -- and also fairly decent -- Smashing Pumpkins album.

Enjoy your breakfast. Unless the judgment "fairly decent" sticks in your craw, in which case Mark Abraham has a built-in counterpoint:

With all of the great music in the world today, does it really matter whether fucking crazy Billy Corgan's new album is any good or not? 20%

Mark was half-joking when he suggested that be the review, but I won't be able to top it. It contains a feeling in twenty words I won't catch in two thousand. Because there's no way he would actually listen to this album, but he would rate it anyway. Because it's a firm negation of any significance -- cultural, emotional, whatever -- that Corgan might have or might have had, the ultimate retcon. Because it means something to hate the Pumpkins, and because that sentence doesn't even betray his hate, f-bomb not withstanding. Because it's a yawn in the face of the Roman Coliseum, a shoulder shrug to the manufactured consent of teenage mobocracy. Because change some of the names around, and you can say the same thing about record sales and life salvation about Bon fucking Jovi.

So I tip my hat, but he asks something rhetorically that has been on my mind very literally: does it matter whether fucking crazy Billy Corgan's new record is any good? And, why would any sentient person care?

Another person who seems to have asked the same thing was Corgan himself. On TheFutureEmbrace(2005), he sounded and acted like he expected the world to listen to his every fart, accompanying a practically unlistenable album with behavior churlish and embarrassing, even by his standards. Perhaps the terrible performance of the record (less than 50,000 copies sold) knocked some sense into him, because Zeitgeist is the sound of a man who has showed up to work. He's responsible for every sound on record that isn't Jimmy Chamberlain hitting a drum, and it reflects the fine tuning of a true craftsman. Whiplash tight breaks, chromatic riffing, solos ping-ponging across the stereo picture, volies of harmonies: this is the work of people who know your attention wanes, and are willing to attract it. For the first time in a decade, Corgan has decided to bring something heavier to the table than you or your memory.

Bringing something heavy to the table does not, however, mean that it's new. At first blush the music seems like it was piped in directly from 1996, rife with dense, multitracked and downtuned guitars. If your favorite Smashing Pumpkins song is the b-side "The Pastichio Medley," twenty-six minutes of out-of-context riffing, then this is the album for you. Nor should one read a hell of a lot into the supposedly outward and political lyrical themes. Corgan is still ego-centric, concerned with "you and me," some far away light, and generally speaking it traffics in much of the new-age gobbledygook that characterized his solo album. Not that there aren't attempts: "United States," the album's best song, is an attempt at ironic caricature of the self-absorbed American consumer. "Revolution, what will it do to me?" But it ends with this deal breaker: "Let me embrace every single thing / Let me embrace every single thing I've misunderstood." Oh, brother, someone turn up the guitars already.

But that's the thing: he does. Hell, the album's best tracks don't dial in the nineties as much as they do Black Sabbath's Masters of Reality (1971). These are the guitar work-outs: lead single "Tarantula," album opener "Doomsday Clock," the nine-minute plus "United States," all of them feature the kind of brooding, dense sound mapped out by Sabbath in the '70s. (See also the video for "Tarantula," which directly rips off the Sabbath clip for "Paranoid.") It's here that the feint of the political concept album becomes most frustrating, where one senses the band missed an opportunity. If anyone can translate melodic rock into halfway convincing apocalypita, it's the Smashing Pumpkins. Not the world's most original idea, to be sure -- "ooh, guitars simulating a dive-bombing airplane! Tense minor chords evoking ineffable dread and paranoia!" -- but in the mainstream Corgan is trying so desperately to swim, it's one that could stand some revisiting.

If that sounds like the band retreating into its comfort zone, it also sounds to me that Corgan, for the first time, is willing to meet the audience half way. Zeitgeist is tailored for mainstream rock radio, certainly, but what I hear is less the work of an unaware has-been then someone hungry again. You want loud guitars? You want Jimmy Chamberlain? You want the Smashing Pumpkins? He's here to give it to you. So this is him reaching for the brass ring, walking to work with the usual compliment of big, ungangly, fusty ideas, but sitting down the unusual willingness to sharpen them. This is why I'm so close to giving this a critical pass, because it's a lot closer to the original idea of the Pumpkins than I had a right to expect: Billy Corgan wants to take over the world.

And that's cool and all, but I sure wish I could hum anything that he actually sings. Initially, one would be tempted to lament Roy Thomas Baker's downward mixing of Corgan's voice, but after repeated listens it becomes clear the producer doesn't have much to work with. The fatal flaw of the Pumpkins' arithmetic has always been the singing, but even on Siamese Dream (1993) freakouts like "Silverfuck" and "Quiet" there were always strong melodies. Corgan occasionally gives himself a hook that has as much room as his guitars -- notably "Starz" and "Bring the Light" -- but when stops letting his Fender do the talking, which is pretty much everything after "United States," the record stops talking too. Worse, Corgan is still the cynical snake in the grass who would revive his old band to help flogging record sale: "That's the Way (My Love is)" reeks of laziness, a turgid pandering to what he perceives as the mopey, sad ballad buying record public. It's the kind of thing you want to ignore when considering the Pumpkins, but considering it's placed fairly high in the running order (track 4) it has single written all over it. It stinks.

The Rolling Stones clinging to their youth was a ridiculous sight in the 1970s, and Lester Bangs laughed them out of newsprint at every turn. But I think Bangs would've looked past all of that had the Stones not committed the ultimate sin: making bad records. No amount of fan alienation and general douchery matters: you're unstoppable as long as you keep doing good work. Zeitgeist isn't a good record, but it is good work, and somewhat relieving after a decade or so of embarrassment and Corgan's smug entitlement. Because, let's be honest, I'll keep coming back, and if you've made it this far, so will you, even if we hate ourselves in the morning. The Smashing Pumpkins will never return our youth to us, but it's not unreasonable to demand of them a record worthy of our time.