Monday, October 1, 2007

There's no going back

The Smashing Pumpkins
Score: *

The only way to reconcile the embarrassment that is Zeitgeist is to disavow it: It's not a real Smashing Pumpkins album. It's quasi-Smashing Pumpkins. It's Smashing Pumpkins 2.0. It's Smashing Pumpkins with an asterisk.

From its shakier songs to its mystifying production jiggery, Zeitgeist proves about as comfortable as a cattle prod. The only protection the Pumpkins' sterling legacy has from Zeitgeist is that asterisk. If you remove it, then the legacy is dented by mistakes compounding mistakes.

Mistake No. 1:

The name. Much pain could have been avoided if Billy Corgan had just left the name alone. Buried it and moved on. Instead, he dredged it up, half-decomposed and in pieces, and tried to resuscitate it.

In 2005, he announced in a full-page ad in the Chicago Tribune that he wanted "my band back." Except that it was never his --- it was theirs. Together they were The Smashing Pumpkins; alone he was Billy Corgan. And guitarist James Iha and bassist D'Arcy Wretzky wanted no part of the reunion.

Perhaps smarting over the outcome of his post-Pumpkins projects --- the short-lived Zwan, which broke up acrimoniously; his foray into poetry; a solo album that failed to catch fire --- Corgan decided he would do whatever it took to reform the Pumpkins.

So he turned his back on Iha and Wretzky, forsaking a musical partnership that lasted more than 12 years, one that he likened in interviews to that of a family, or a band of brothers in the trenches. He cryptically announced the band's reformation and went into the studio with drummer Jimmy Chamberlin.

Mistake No. 2:

Zeitgeist abandons the approach that made the Pumpkins' music consistently enthralling. The Pumpkins were progressive and calculating. They shifted their sound based on internal dynamics, changes in the musical landscape and a zest for exploration. They were ahead of the curve. They moved from the psychedelic swirl of Gish to the grunge-meets-classic-rock crash of Cherub Rock; from the epic scope of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness to the dark, ornate tapestry of Adore, and beyond. Corgan's lyrical skill and conceptual powers seemed to grow with almost every release.

Zeitgeist, by contrast, is regressive. It's out of step. It ignores the trajectory of the Pumpkins' career. It doesn't use Machina/The Machines of God and Machina II/The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music as reference points. Corgan seems to have lost his compass.

"7 Shades of Black" is a tepid rewrite of "Bodies." "United States" starts out promising, with surging electric guitars building up Chamberlin's tom attack. But come the five-minute mark, it plunders from the back catalog, recycling music from live renditions of "Silverfuck."

Mistake No. 3:

Zeitgeist doesn't know what it wants to be. Judging from the opening salvo of "Doomsday Clock" and the many towers of overdubbed guitars, Zeitgeist was meant to be a thunderous affirmation of the Pumpkins' continued ability to rock. But the production works against it. Like a screen, it muffles what it shouldn't, namely the big-and-noisy parts. Yet in "Starz," when Corgan softly sings, "We are stars," the volume jumps. Whether melodic, like high point "That's the Way (My Love Is)," or bombastic, like "Bring the Light," all songs suffer. Two producers assisted with Zeitgeist: Roy Thomas Baker (Queen, The Cars) and Terry Date (Pantera, Soundgarden). Each, however, handled fewer tracks than Corgan and Chamberlin. And Corgan and Chamberlin also are credited as co-producers on everything, so they have to bear responsibility.

Mistake No. 4:

Assuming rocking out was the focus of Zeitgeist, why lard the album's imagery with platitudes? The inside art features Paris Hilton, banks of televisions, the grim reaper flanked by politicians, a Trojan warrior with an automatic weapon, and the queen of England at a memorial. The queen is weeping for a heart with a Smashing Pumpkins logo on it.

All part of the confounding premise. "Zeitgeist" roughly means "the spirit of the age." So is it the zeitgeist of 2007 to get back on the circuit? To be riffmongers? Is it the zeitgeist of 2007 to protest U.S. affairs? The whole assemblage feels cheap, easy and thrown-together. It's nothing like the craft and thoughtfulness of previous albums.

Mistake No. 5:

Zeitgeist was issued in four forms, with Target, Best Buy and iTunes each selling a version that featured an extra track and a different tracklisting. Now, there isn't anything shocking or unusual about limited-edition bonus tracks; labels have played this marketing game a million times in the past.

The main problem with this arrangement is that it sends dangerous message: Shop at the big-box store instead of the independent. Yes, it's a moot point if everyone acquires the tracks through file-sharing services or otherwise finds a way to beat the system, but not everyone will have the knowledge, resources or persistence to do so.

The other problem is that it endorses commercialism at the expense of art. The running order of an album means something. When you tack on bonus tracks or rearrange the sequence to accommodate them, it's a significant change. The shrewdest artists release bonus tracks on a separate CD, or via a reissue, or in some other way that doesn't undermine the album as a unified statement. By releasing multiple versions of Zeitgeist, the Pumpkins are basically saying the tracklisting doesn't matter.

Mistake No. 6:

As if Corgan's appropriation of the band name wasn't rude enough, he coughs up an old bone of contention. An oft-repeated tale holds that Siamese Dream, the album that made the Pumpkins megastars, was basically a Corgan solo effort, with him playing all or most of his bandmates' parts (excluding the drum tracks). Some saw this as evidence of a runaway ego or his need to hog the credit.

In Zeitgeist, the liner notes defiantly read:

performed artfully by

This is the equivalent of saying, "In your face, everyone!"

And such connections to the past simply illuminate the steepness of the fall. Before the Pumpkins broke up near the end of 2000, they were a juggernaut. Mellon Collie continued a long streak of impressive sales and critical and popular acclaim. Adore and Machina, while being far from rallying points at the time, have become considerably more appreciated since their respective 1998 and 2000 releases.

Zeitgeist will not go down in history as the first Smashing Pumpkins album with an asterisk. (That distinction belongs to Machina II, which the band gave away in September 2000 to fans, instructing them to share it with anyone.)

No, Zeitgeist will be remembered as the first Smashing Pumpkins album that didn't sound like a Smashing Pumpkins album.