Smashing Pumpkins, Zeitgeist CD review: First Listen

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Sometimes the mailman graces me with some unexpected gifts – like this week, when the USPS dropped off a top-secret, watermarked copy of the new Smashing Pumpkins album, Zeitgeist. I don’t think it’s leaked online yet (or has it?), nor have I read much on other blogs about how the rest of the album sounds beyond the first single, “Tarantula.” So since I’ve been listening to the disc for the past week trying to wrap my brain around it, here’s an exclusive, track-by-track review of the album. I’ll put my thoughts after the jump, in case people want to be surprised when Zeitgeist comes out on July 10.

I will say, however, that those of you hoping that Zeitgeist is an unmitigated disaster will be disappointed: It’s not. Those of you afraid that Billy Corgan made another The Future Embrace (his uber-synthpop, somewhat-cheesy solo album) will be happy: He didn’t.

With drummer Jimmy Chamberlin the lone member of the classic Pumpkins lineup remaining – a good move, as his influence on the new songs is clearly a positive one, at least in terms of keeping Zeitgeist reigned-in and focused – Corgan embraces the quintessential Pumpkins hit-making calculus: Distortion, noise, heavily-layered vocals, and quiet-to-loud dynamics permeate the first half of Zeitgeist, only letting up briefly for one extended period of instrumental wankery – “United States,” a song that ends up functioning as a transition into the second half of the album, which contains keyboard-heavy (and poppier) songs.

What’s interesting about Zeitgeist is that Corgan has all but abandoned the past decade of Smashing Pumpkins experimentation – in particular, the electro-industrial darkness of Adore and Machina’s New Order-inspired Britpop/new-wave – in favor of the sound that brought him critical respect and rabid fandom in the early 1990s. (A move more than a little reminiscent of the “back to its roots” ethos U2 adopted on its two most recent albums, when it conveniently forgot about Pop’s discotheque action and Zooropa’s bizarro-electro-pop ambience.)

In fact, I can’t help but think of U2 when listening to Zeitgeist (and no, it’s not because both frontmen supposedly have raging egos). Like U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, Zeitgeist is instantly recognizable as Smashing Pumpkins – but it often lacks the songwriting and lyrical synergy that made Siamese Dream and Gish (or in U2’s case, War and The Joshua Tree) classics. Blame it on Zeitgeist’s political focus – I’m sorry, but at this point, do we need another rockstar to weigh in on America and our fucked-up politics here and abroad, no matter how obliquely? – and its sometimes-suspect lyrics.

Now granted, it’s nearly impossible to judge a band’s newest work completely objectively, especially when this particular band is attempting to build on a past that was both wildly successful and creative. At the same time, it’s certainly unfair to expect any group to recapture its early energy and creative bursts – evolution is a necessarily and very welcome evil. But perhaps it’s also almost difficult to parse the scope of Zeitgeist since Billy Corgan's distinctive, nasally vocal timbre and inflections make nearly all music he creates -- no matter if he’s flying solo or in another band (i.e., Zwan) -- feel like a Smashing Pumpkins disc. The band has been away for a bunch of years (and sure, Corgan retired Pumpkins songs live for awhile) although with Corgan's penchant for reinvention, it doesn't feel like they've even been away.

Perhaps this reaction is because Zeitgeist’s tricks aren’t quite as revolutionary today as they were when SP debuted -- much like in the way Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and countless other “grunge” bands sound far less dangerous today than they did to my ears in 1993. On the first few listens, Zeitgeist is a good record – maybe not groundbreaking or life-changing, but good. And for many artists, that’s fine. But for those expecting great things from Billy Corgan because of his legacy and lasting impact on radio and bands, is that good enough? At what point do unrealistic expectations color how an album is perceived?

It’ll be interesting to see how a generation of kids weaned on bands influenced by the Pumpkins – especially Muse, Silversun Pickups and My Chemical Romance – will respond to Zeitgeist. Fans of a certain age (twenty- and thirty-somethings mostly) who were inundated with Pumpkins music in high school and college will find Zeitgeist familiar, if not nostalgia-inducing. But newbie fans who might not be aware of Corgan’s perfectionist reputation or his detours away from distorto-pop (and if you think about it, modern alt-rock radio stations tend to shy away from latter-day Pumpkins) are entirely used to (if not immune to) SP-styled distortion. They may just not be as interested in the band– or find Corgan as relatable an icon as, say, MCR’s Gerard Way, whose misfit-nerd persona Corgan assumed rather well himself ten, fifteen years ago.

Keep in mind that these listens were on a crappy clock radio/CD player – the only thing I own besides my car that played this promo – and that I haven’t read any interviews with Corgan about Zeitgeist or other reviews of the album so far.

1. “Doomsday Clock”: The noisy Pumpkins are back. In a big way. A strong, solid opening to Zeitgeist, “Clock” is catchy and instantly memorable. Guitars scream in like a bottle-rocket and distort almost immediately, driven by Chamberlin’s Animal-from-Muppets drumming and Corgan’s layered vox – arranged in such a way that he resembles a mechanized robot. The chorus will likely be singled out by multiple critics as a representation of Corgan’s ego: “Please don’t stop / It’s lonely at the top / These lonely days / Will they ever stop? / This doomsday clock / Ticking in my heart / These lonely days / Will they ever stop?” A promising opening.

2. “7 Shades of Black”: The noisy, distorted intro resembles the throttling of Muse (who, judging by Zeitgeist, are way more influenced by early Smashing Pumpkins than most give them credit for). A burst of white noise with no discernible pop structure, save for several lulls where the chaos subsides to let Corgan’s hard-to-decipher rant-screams take center stage. Very reminiscent of Gish. A good interlude between tracks one and three, since it’s not particularly memorable.

3. “Bleeding the Orchid”: An echoing, hymn-like intro with wordless crooning from Corgan bleeds directly into a slower, sludgy song that’s sorta-psychedelic and very 1990s – although one saved again from dirge-y purgatory because of Chamberlin’s influence. Lyrically suspect, however: “As hate forms a sequence / Of one by one / As freedom’s not easy / There’s so much to want / There’s clouds in my shower / Ghosts in my home / Bleeding the orchid.” What?

4. “That’s the Way (My Love Is)”: Sheets of droning (but melodic) guitar heavily influenced by wistful shoegazers – My Bloody Valentine in particular – dominate this song, until the screaming guitar solo on the bridge signals a loud, crescendoing ending. Still, the most peaceful moment on the album, and an early highlight. Another obvious single.

5. “Tarantula”: The monstrous first single. In context with the rest of Zeitgeist, it’s fairly representative of the album as a whole, if not structured a little more traditionally. Hear here and here.

6. “Starz”: Another song with a quiet intro that immediately turns l-o-u-d. Distinguishing characteristics include Corgan whispering “We are starz” (stars?) and guitars with more than a touch of the Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane” meedlee-meedlee-mee stuff going on. The bass-heavy live version of the song reveals a bit more of a Bauhaus (or, weirdly, Metallica) influence. Still, generic and obtuse. And it’s more than a little lame to replace “s” with “z,” if you’re over the age of seventeen.

7. “United States”: Quite obviously intended to be Zeitgeist’s epic moment. Ominous drumming and fuzzy riffs reminiscent of U2’s “Until the End of the World” begat phrases like “Revolution, what will they do to you?” and “Revolution, what will they do to me?” (Ooh, symmetrical deep thoughts.) Then turns into a long, extended instrumental jam full of distortion, meandering guitar solos and other bits of wankery. Completely self-indulgent and entirely too long and boring, even if snippets of sound here and there are pleasant enough.

8. “Neverlost”: Features Bowie-esque touches (think a less-glammy version of the repetitive riffs snaking through Scary Monsters“Ashes to Ashes”), subtle strings and what sounds like a marimba chiming along in the back. Discernible lyrics include “I’m in touch with you.” A weak song that never really goes anywhere.

9. “Bring the Light”: The most new-wave-sounding song on the album. Smiths-like chiming guitars on the chorus and brisk, danceable beats throughout match wits with Corgan’s vocals cooing chorus phrases such as, “I’ve never felt so really right / Bring the light.” All bleeds into, again, a pseudo-hair-metal breakdown by the end of the song. Should be a booming success – and it is totally catchy, don’t get me wrong -- but somehow feels like Smashing Pumpkins karaoke.

10. “(Come on) Let’s Go!”: Not an Apples in Stereo song, although the fuzzy chord-bombs and compact-pop feel of the song are very 1990s indie-rock. Feels like it should be on a seven-inch single with a hand-drawn sleeve. Most reminiscent of Siamese Dream, i.e. vintage Smashing Pumpkins.

11. “For God and Country”: The acoustic version of this song floating around YouTube doesn’t do justice to the studio version, which might be Zeitgeist’s best song. Ghostly synthesizers – again, very reminiscent of Scary Monsters-era Bowie, or, weirdly, Real Life’s “Send Me an Angel” – and plinking piano mesh well with cloudy drones of guitar and Corgan’s multi-layered vocals. Clearly meant to be a single.

12. “Pomp and Circumstance”: Bombastic. Grandiose. Could be an outtake from Future Embrace. Delicate, syrupy-slow and heavy with keyboards. Corgan sings multi-tracked “la-la-la-la” flourishes over spacey, droning synths -- cue 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” – while a gong goes off in the background. The electric guitar snaking through the end of the song oddly sounds in texture and tone like Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” especially in its unfurling majesty – which is probably deliberate. Painfully self-indulgent, although an appropriate way to end the album.

-- Annie Zaleski

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