Love him or hate him, Billy Corgan has never been one to shy away from artistic expression. Sometimes that expression gives us Smashing Pumpkins album like Gish or Siamese Dream, while at other times we get the over indulgent and incredibly plastic album Zeitgeist. Technically the Smashing Pumpkin’s latest release Oceania is their ninth album but really, the way they release records, it’s hard to tell what the number comes to. There are certain things you have to face with Oceania. The first is that the James Iha, D’arcy Wretzky and Jimmy Chamberlain Pumpkins are long over. The second is that this incarnation of the Smashing Pumpkins seems to bring the best out of Billy Corgan.
Oceania is the first time in a long while I’ve heard the Smashing Pumpkins sound like the band they used to be. I’m not living in nostalgia by saying that, I’m simply referring to the era when Corgan wrote beautifully intricate songs of struggling melancholy and romanticism that held a subtext of anger and disappointment. Corgan injects soul into Oceania and uses his trademark swirling guitar dance to hold that soul up. The record communicates that same feeling you had when you first kissed a girl you really loved.
For all its quixotic ideals, Oceania blasts through the doors with a rocker. “Quasar” carries that same kind of power riff that “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” did but with vocals and underlying guitar parts that make it less vitriolic and more fist pumping. Yep, Smashing Pumpkins opens this new record with a rager, which set me up to believe new things were afoot within the Pumpkins camp. “The Celestials” is a quieter and more acoustic track, calling the lush and quiet moments of Melancholy And The Infinite Sadness. The song is catchy but with a injection of prog-rock that keeps it from collapsing on itself.
The romantic “Violet Rays” combines a disco-era keyboard sound with Corgan belting out his lyrics and the strum of a quiet guitar. When that guitar punches in it goes right through your heart “Pinwheels” is a perfect example of how well Smashing Pumpkins can use tension. The Cars-like keyboards repeat to the sound of what I believe is a tremolo guitar wash that moves into the kind of sweeping guitar sound that usually signals the end of a movie. I couldn’t believe how upbeat these tunes made me. When “Pinwheels” slows down to its acoustic center all I wanted to do was grab my girlfriend and kiss her in the rain.
“One Diamond, One Heart” is a track I kept coming back to, mainly because it’s so outside what I expect from Smashing Pumpkins. It’s as if Corgan spent a great deal of time in a European disco and then decided to listen to as much OMD and Echo And The Bunnymen as he could. This is a staggeringly good song that encompasses electro-pop, rock guitars and the trademark Smashing Pumpkins swirling guitar dance. For those looking to find at least one old school sounding song, dig on “The Chimera”. It could have come from any of the first three albums.
Everything isn’t perfect on Oceania. Corgan’s penchant for self-indulgence finds its way into the title track. “Oceania” is a nine-minute jam that has no business being longer than three or four minutes. “Pale Horse” tries to introduce an almost Queen or Smiths like structure and it never takes off. These are small problems, tiny prices to pay for what is an outstanding effort.
The best part of Oceania is that it is the first Smashing Pumpkins album that really stands on its own. Corgan refers to this as an “album within an album” because it falls within the framework of his 44 song multi-album epic Teargarden by Kaleidyscope. That doesn’t matter here at all. Billy Corgan’s polarizing public statements, the ones where he does everything but rattle the genius sabre into the face of every member of planet earth, those are gone.
Nothing matters with Oceania except Oceania. The record stands alone as its own statement made by not just Corgan but also a real band behind him. I miss Jimmy Chamberlain behind the drums but this two-year in crew seems to serve Billy Corgan very well. If Oceania is a testament of what’s to come, I may need to pull my old Smashing Pumpkin t-shirt out of the closet.
Check out our interview with Billy Corgan on Oceania and upcoming Pumpkins reissues!