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The Legacy and Possible Rebirth of the Smashing Pumpkins: Part 3 The Rebirth through Zeitgeist?
For me, the Smashing Pumpkins are one of those bands, like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, that even at their worst I found interesting and compelling enough to listen to. I'm a big fan of their first three albums of course, but can also appreciate the their new directions on Adore and even MACHINA I and II. Since the announcement that they would be "reforming" for a new album and subsequent new tour I have been preparing myself for new Pumpkins music and have stated multiple times that I was looking forward to hearing new material from one of my all time favorite bands.
That new album was released on July 10th 2007, and I have been listening to it along with all of my other Pumpkins material from the major alums to the obscure b-sides, demos and covers trying to decide what exactly I wanted to say about this release; how I think it will be perceived by the fans, new and old; and what it means in terms of the rebirth of the Smashing Pumpkins in a society that last saw them nearly 7 years prior.
After a lot of pondering and listening to music I think I can finally state at least a few of my thoughts about the album, Zeitgeist, it's impact and what this means for the Smashing Pumpkins, clearly and so this is part 3: The Rebirth through Zeitgeist.
I don't think any album that could have possibly been written could have lived up to my expectations for what a new release from the Smashing Pumpkins should sound like... except maybe had they released Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness now instead of back in the 90s... With any band with such a huge legacy it can be difficult to get past their best work and try to listen to new material with a fresh slate and not with preconceived notions. I think that is one of the reasons some of the other projects Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin have been involved in have not been so widely accepted, especially the immensely misunderstood Zwan. It would be easy to make the same sort of mistake with Zeitgeist, if not easier because it is actually under the Smashing Pumpkins banner, while Zwan was independent, and I wonder if that has swayed some of the reviews I have read.
I don't put much stock in album reviews as each person's viewpoints are different but I do read a lot of them, especially when it comes to albums I'm a little torn about, to try and gain some insight from someone else's perspective on the music. For this album, I read reviews that gave it 4/5 stars (Rolling Stone), others that said 2/5 (All Music) and others till that were pretty negative and used phrases like "...sounds like a man trying to cash in on a legacy..." (Filter Magazine). That's quite a range of opinions, from what I would assume, three people who are quite versed in the band's earlier works.
When I first listened through the album, I'll admit that I was actually pretty disappointed... thrilled I was listening to new Pumpkins material, but disappointed none the less.
I didn't hear any of the catchy progressive hooks or poetic imagery that drew me into songs like "Bullet With Butterfly Wings", "Cherub Rock" and "Siva". There were some songs that stood out, but not for the same reasons that the Pumpkins always had in the past. I liked the heavy pounding riffs of "Doomsday Clock" and its quasi apocalyptic lyrics, and also the hyper hard rock pace of "7 Shades of Black" although, back to back, the songs sounded far a little too similar. I heard a subtle mysticism and haunting dreamy quality of "Bleeding the Orchid" that seemed to be reminiscent of previous Pumpkins tracks and I liked the first single from the album, "Tarantula" although for some reason the album version sounds less hard hitting than even the bad quality radio rip I first heard. The rest of the album didn't go over well as the choir-esque overdubbed vocals of the open of "Starz" didn't sit well, sounding far too digital; "United States" seemed massive, but missing something; both "Bring the Light" and "Come On Lets Go" seemed vaguely out of place, but ok rockers; and both "For God and Country" and "Pomp and Circumstance" seemed to fall flat, although the latter did have a cool guitar lead.
And just like that, my first listen through the first new Pumpkins album in 7 years was over...
I almost decided to write a review right then and there... and it probably would have been pretty scathing... but rarely do my opinions of albums remain the same as they were on the first listen, so I decided to take a few days/weeks to solidify my feelings, listen through my catalog of Pumpkins tunes and decide where exactly this release would fall in my head.
I'm glad I did because although I still don't think it's a "It blew me away!" kind of album, there is a bit more depth to these songs than I first heard.
I realized that one of the things that really turned me off about the album was the mixing and the production. Looking back, albums like Adore and MACHINA I & II all do sound a bit over processed at times, with a little too much fuzz and a little too much static but none of them really sounded glossy smooth. Zeitgeist sounds far more glossy than any other Pumpkins album, very digital and not as organic as even the fuzzed out static of the MACHINA era. It's also a very thick record with a very "wall of sound" like quality to it. I don't mean the wall of guitar sounds the band was known for (I'll touch on that later), but an endless layers type of sound that personally I don't like as I think some space in these songs would really open them up a lot and make them sound more real and less processed.
Also, although there are some standout moments in the guitar work and drum work (as always), the thick guitar sound was different. Instead of the massive mid heavy attack that was their trademark guitar sound, the huge Pumpkins guitars I love, here it is far more scooped, sounding more open and pushed to the back, often to the point where guitar riffs like that of "United States", which should sound enormous, instead sound like a very clichÃ© mix of distortion from which the actual riff can barely be deciphered. Sure, songs like "Jellybelly" and "Tales of a Scorched Earth" had huge thick guitars as well, but they didn't sound nearly as indistinguishable from the background wall of sound. This problem comes and goes song to song or somethings during songs with some moments sounding better but overall it is disappointing as I think that it really takes some of the snarl out of some songs that should be far more powerful.
I also realized when listening to Zwan, (I'm actually a big fan of the doomed Zwan project) that some of these songs, songs like "Bring the Light" and especially "Come On Lets Go" sound like direct links to the Zwan era, but with slightly harder guitars and I like those songs more now than on first listen. I started hearing a lot more of Zwan in the single "Tarantula" as well, which added another level of depth, although I think the mixing again took it's toll on that song as well.
Now with some time, I'm starting to dig songs like "Starz", "7 Shades of Black" and "Bleeding the Orchid", although it took some getting past the glossy exterior, especially on "Starz". I can also hear a lot more psychedelia in songs like "God and Country" and "Doomsday Clock" which is a link back to some of the original progressive rock and trippy tracks of the Pumpkins heyday, and a definite plus... And "God and Country" has started to remind me a lot of the Adore era.
Taking some time to explore this music I'm growing to accept this album as part of the Pumpkins catalog as I can hear traces of other songs from throughout not only the Pumpkins career, but Billy Corgan's entire career.
Still, I don't think it's an amazing album. It's not bad... decent... and there are some good moments but a slight lack of riffs. There is also one major thing missing in my mind: the poetic depth, intriguing lyrics and that feeling of artistic worth. There are still some great lyrical lines, but I see two ways of reading these songs... either they're too directly addressing real world problems and involved with everyday society to end up sounding timeless, or they're an attempt at commentary on the fact that all songs, no matter how timeless sounding, are really products of a specific time, by trying to walk the line between topical and internal and remain purposefully vague.
On first listen, songs like "Doomsday Clock", "Starz" and "United States" sound almost certainly based in real world issues and events... even their titles sound charged with the problems of the modern world, which is odd for the Smashing Pumpkins, a band that never sounded overtly topical... but are these songs really about those issues or just appearing to be to offer comment on something larger or completely different?
It's debatable for sure, but I don't think it's completely relevant to the worth of this particular album because in either case it kind of falls short. Either the songs are about real world issues, but sound so directly about those issues that they don't have much depth and end up sounding more dated than timeless... OR... the songs are actually deeper social commentary, but don't achieve their goal because that commentary is too subtle and they end up sounding far too direct... again. This becomes a slight problem because it contrasts so much with the arrangements of the music, which just seem to beg to be larger than life, timeless anthems and makes the songs as a whole sound a little forced at times as they try to be relevant.
I guess after a lot of wondering, the conclusion I've come to is... If Zeitgeist had been released by any other band but the Smashing Pumpkins, it's probably a 3 star or so album...decent... not spectacular, and at the same time not horrible... However, this is a Smashing Pumpkins album and I think that is why you see the large differences in review ratings. Some see it as the band's worst effort when comparing it to their previous works and give low ratings, while others see it as a new direction and because it's the Pumpkins hail this with good reviews. I think we'll see the same split in how it's received by the fans as well with some openly accepting it because it's from the Smashing Pumpkins and others trashing it for the same reason.
Personally, I would say Zeitgeist sounds less artistic and deep than some of their other albums, which is only slightly a bad thing. It's a different direction for sure as they definitely break new ground with all sorts of musical ideas... which I like... but I don't think they pull it off as well as any of their other albums or even as well as Zwan, and that by default, makes it the band's worst effort to date. That sounds bad, but you have to remember that the worst from a band that has made some of the best albums of all time is still better than most and it could have been far worse if it was just a rehash of previous ideas. This is not a rehash and there is definitely some good music here worth listening to... I'm partial to "Come on Lets Go" for it's Zwan-esque quality, "Doomsday Clock", "7 Shades of Black" and "Starz", all of which are good, new direction, rock songs,with the roots of something more... but nothing necessarily spectacular.
It is an album that has grown on me and continues to do so, so in a little while I might think better of it still... Oh, and I do sort of wonder what this album would have ended up sounding like had James Iha been involved... but that sort of wondering won't get us anywhere...
As for what this will mean for the Smashing Pumpkins I guess only time will tell. They have successfully returned and I'd still love to go see them play live. This is surely a rebirth, but I don't know if I'd call it a true return to glory yet. If there is another new album in the next few years, I think that one will determine if they can make something amazing with this new direction in their songwriting, or if most fans will agree that they peaked in the 90s.
Either way, I'll always be a fan and I'm sure I'll always check out their new music because as I said in the intro of this 3 part piece and in the intro of each part, the Smashing Pumpkins always have and always will be a band that even at their worst, I find compelling enough to listen to.
If you're a Smashing Pumpkins fan and you either loved or hated the new album, take some time and listen through the rest of their music and then listen to the new album again as your opinions just might change.
If you haven't checked out the new album yet, you can buy it directly from Amazon here: Zeitgeist