Release Date: Dec 9, 2014
Record label: BMG Rights Management
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan has always been an ambitious soul, but he’s also usually been able to pull it off. In the mid-90s, the band released a triptych of near-perfect albums – 1993’s Siamese Dream, 1995’s Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness and 1998’s Adore. It wasn’t without consequences: by the time the latter was released, the Chicago alt.rock act had been on a self-destructive path for quite some time.
As he set to work on Monuments to an Elegy, the second "album within an album" within the larger Teargarden by Kaleidyscope project, Billy Corgan slowly whittled down Smashing Pumpkins to himself and guitarist Jeff Schroeder. This narrowing of the group -- the duo is supported by the hired hand of Mötley Crüe's drummer Tommy Lee -- ultimately doesn't matter much because ever since the Pumpkins' 2007 comeback, the secret of Corgan's complete control of the group was out in the open. More than either Zeitgeist or Oceania, both of which traded in the surging six-strings of Siamese Dream, Monuments to an Elegy feels like a Corgan solo project and not just because this percolates with analog synthesizers straight out of The Future Embrace.
If there’s one thing in the Smashing Pumpkins’ leader and alt rock icon Billy Corgan’s 25 year career that has remained constant, it’s his absolute conviction and determination to follow his own path despite all manner of criticism. This strength of character and personality has helped to make him such an enduring and divisive presence. After a tumultuous career peppered with incredible highs, excruciating lows, fallouts, tantrums and rebirths, it’s a testament to the man and the band that has defined him that ‘Monuments To An Elegy’, the Pumpkins’ tenth studio recording, is a triumph.
The Smashing Pumpkins played their first proper shows in Chicago in 1988. Billy Corgan was on bass, James Iha on guitar. Longtime bassist D’arcy Wretzky hadn’t put a foot through the SP door, and a wonderful jazz drummer named Jimmy Chamberlin hadn’t yet been recommended by a friend to Corgan. According to the rock ’n’ roll history books, the drum role of one of the ‘90s’ mightiest bands was first filled by a notoriously reliable and versatile drum machine of the 1980s.
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.
Truth be told, the name The Smashing Pumpkins should probably be retired at this point. The band that made all those ’90s classics (Gish, Siamese Dream, and about two thirds of Mellon Collie) is long gone and, when Jimmy Chamberlain hit the road back in 2009, Billy Corgan was the last man standing. Since then, the Pumpkins have been a fairly hit and miss affair with Corgan only showing glimpses of what made his band so popular originally.
The 'Pumpkins are back and heavier than ever... Billy Corgan is back with a vengeance. Inviting Mötley Crüe sticksman Tommy Lee along for the ride, The Smashing Pumpkins’ mastermind returns to heavier climes, delivering a typically atmospheric ninth album. At times, this album evokes the halcyon days of ‘Siamese Dream’, pursuing a familiar fusion of hazy melody and squalls of guitar.
Over the past decade, it's been pretty easy to dislike Billy Corgan. After disbanding his group in 2000, Corgan has played the role of alt rock's cantankerous old man, incessantly complaining about the state of music and even lambasting his own fans for not appreciating his new songs. That's why it's so tempting to dismiss Monuments to an Elegy, Corgan's third LP since reforming (in name at least) the Smashing Pumpkins.
There’s been a sense of diminishing return about the records Smashing Pumpkins have released since Billy Corgan resurrected them seven years ago. They’re now the Pumpkins in name alone. Guitarist Jeff Schroeder, who replaced James Iha for 2007’s revival, is the only other permanent member involved on this tenth album and, bizarrely, 52-year-old former Mötley Crüe reprobate Tommy Lee plays drums on it.
There’s no predicting what Billy Corgan will do. Ten years ago, most fans would have balked at the idea of the Smashing Pumpkins frontman owning a wrestling league, commissioning a 19-year-old drummer to replace Jimmy Chamberlin, or opening a tea house where he’d spontaneously DJ. Now, news of him cuddling with cats on the cover of Paws Chicago reads as normal behavior, which makes other headlines easier to swallow, like when he announces an eight-hour electronic performance inspired by Siddhartha or that he’s been in the studio with Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee.
The Smashing Pumpkins' history can be told in two acts. Act one, an unconventional alt-rock band scores international success with a series of guitar-heavy albums for introverts. Act two, that band goes through a nearly uncountable series of lineup changes and spends the following 15 years releasing a comeback album every now and then, but never recapturing the spark of imagination that fueled their early success.
Smashing PumpkinsMonuments to an Elegy(BMG Rights Management)Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars Smashing Pumpkins frontman/founder Billy Corgan may not have released many albums over the decades; this is only his eighth under the band’s name in the nearly quarter century since 1991’s Gish debut, although a solo set and another band called Zwan also vied for his attention. But he has doggedly crafted his distinctive widescreen thunder over the years. Those love ‘em-or-hate ‘em constricted vocals meshed with cascading washes of guitars, synths and thundering drums pounding out songs about … well it’s tough to understand what they are about … but you get the impression Corgan knows.
For all his world-is-a-vampire nihilism of years past, Billy Corgan has been sounding shockingly well-adjusted lately. Still, the Great Pumpkin's deep dive into synth pop on Monuments to an Elegy – the latest installment in his band's multi-album cycle Teargarden by Kaleidyscope – is a surprise. Corgan's characteristically acidic vocals make sure that songs like the New Wave-y "Dorian," the Killers-ish "Run2Me" and the cloying "Anti-Hero" are as much Pumpkins as they are pop.
Since the turn of the century, the Smashing Pumpkins have been a promise Billy Corgan just can’t keep. MACHINA/The Machines of God had about 20 minutes of outstanding music, 20 minutes of dreadful music, and 20 that fell somewhere in between—all of it at odds with Corgan’s “return to rock” claims for an album that had more synthesizers and chiaroscuro coloring than Adore. Meanwhile, Zeitgeist and Oceania each attempted to signify a workmanlike, “back to basics” approach for a band who never did workmanlike or basic.
The title doesn’t bode well. Calling an album Monuments to an Elegy speaks either of bold ambition or its kissing cousin, hubris. Billy Corgan, the Smashing Pumpkins’ mainman throughout numerous line-up vacillations, is no stranger to either. He also likes pinning signs marked “kick me” to his works.
The much-trumpeted Smashing Pumpkins “reunion” never happened. Guitarist James Iha and bassist D’Arcy Wretzky quickly announced that they would not be involved, while the 2009 departure of drummer Jimmy Chamberlin left Billy Corgan as the only remaining original member. This hasn’t stopped him picking up from where they left off in the 90s. Like 2012’s Oceania, Monuments to An Elegy returns to the trademark Pumpkins sound.
Something’s picked up in Billy Corgan’s world of late: if 2007’s Smashing Pumpkins ‘comeback’ record Zeitgeist was a soggy bellow that suggested James and D’Arcy actually did loads more than we all thought, everything since has been a baby-step towards recovery. Oceania ditched its predecessor’s lumbering bombast in favour of nice but not especially memorable melodies; now Monuments to an Elegy offers an upgrade on the same, with sturdier, hookier tunes, a greater sense of ease and a greater robustness. It’s certainly the best Pumpkins album since Corgan started making work under that name again: lovestruck, melodic, tuneful and confident, it starts with the perfectly executed candy coloured explosion of ‘Tiberius’ and barely puts a foot wrong across its running time.
There's a bit in the 1994 movie Trainspotting where Jonny Lee Miller's character expresses his "unifying theory of life" with specific regard to rock stars: "at some point you get it," he says, "you lose it, and you never get it back". Ewan McGregor pulls out Lou Reed as a counter-argument, because "some of his solo stuff's not bad." The reply is damning. "No, it's not bad, but it's not great either, is it? he says.
Despite the ponderous title, the Smashing Pumpkins' ninth studio album, "Monuments to an Elegy" (Martha's Music), is practically lighthearted by Billy Corgan standards. Corgan hasn't gone all One Direction on us, but it's by far his most concise, pop-oriented album as the sole remaining original member of a band that sold multimillions of albums during its '90s heyday. During that era, the singer tapped into progressive rock, psychedelia, metal and Goth, channeling the ambition and excess that each suggests.
Lineup instability is an integral part of Smashing Pumpkins’ mythology. While on some level this personnel upheaval is a moot point—after all, frontman Billy Corgan is in charge of the band’s vision and aesthetic—the revolving group of collaborators has made it difficult to find a sonic through-line in the group’s output since (and including) 2007’s Zeitgeist. Certainly this flux fits the disparate music Corgan writes for Smashing Pumpkins; recent songs encompass surging space rock, gothic shoegaze, prog-influenced opuses, glossy hard rock and lilting synthpop.
I wonder if Billy Corgan would prefer people listened to his most recent album in a vacuum where Melancholy And The Infinite Sadness, news of his ever-changing backing band and Anderson Cooper don’t exist. I wonder if diehard Smashing Pumpkins fans wish that, too. It would make it easier to take in Monuments To An Elegy, their most straightforward and accessible album to date.
Pause for a moment to appreciate the fact that the title of “Monuments to an Elegy” is built around two words that both refer to commemorations of something once great that has died. Smashing Pumpkins long ago ceased to be the band that it will be forever remembered as — something cruelly underlined by Mötley Crüe’s Tommy Lee manning the drum chair with a fraction of the subtlety and momentum formerly provided by Jimmy Chamberlin. Billy Corgan’s musical gifts, much like his monomaniacal-perfectionist reputation, have soured over the years, and these songs are failed epics in miniature.