Billy Corgan is definitely one of those guys who has gotten stranger as he’s gotten older.
An undisputed musical icon and innovator of his era in the nineties, writer of some of the most killer music of the last twenty years, and a man with probably a sizeable ego too, his pedigree and talent has never been in question.
And the Smashing Pumpkins remain one of the most enduringly popular and iconic acts of their time.
But yes, he’s definitely gotten stranger as he’s gotten older.
Opening a tea house (where he also frequently DJs), appearing on the cover of ‘Paws Chicago’ cuddling a bunch of cats, and now, most baffling of all, announcing that his next career move is to officially enter into the weird world of professional wrestling.
But that’s Billy. And, thinking about it, he probably always had that odd streak even back in the old days. Ever seen that old Pumpkins VHS compilation, ‘Viewphoria’? It was full of weird, off-key material; quirky as fuck.
And most of us probably like our rock stars eccentric anyway. And the fact is that he still possesses the sonic power to bowl you over with his music too; as was evidenced in the Smashing Pumpkins’ latest offering, Monuments to an Elegy, which was released several months ago.
He has never had much interest in doing things small either. Like the 2012 Oceania album, Monuments to an Elegy is part of an ongoing, larger entity being called Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, which had been announced in 2009; it’s all a bit confusing, but Billy does things his own way. That other epic, extended Smashing Pumpkins album of old, Meloncollie & the Infinite Sadness, incidentally turns twenty years old this year (what a piece of work that was), so perhaps the fact that two decades later we still have Billy thinking big and doing the expansive thing is sort of fitting.
Maybe it gives us a sense of continuity; that there are constants in our landscape and one of them is Billy Corgan trying to craft out highly considered pieces of work.
Monuments to an Elegy surprised me in terms of just how good some of it is. Like most post-Meloncollie releases, there are some fairly unengaging songs too; but the good ones really do stand up above the rest and demand attention and respect. Chief among these is ‘Tiberius’; a classically SP offering with driving guitars and drums and that epic, slightly romantic Corgan flourish (I was excited at the title, as I thought it might be an ode to the Emperor Tiberius; it isn’t).
It’s ‘Tiberius’ that’s the standout track on the album, as it was when I first heard it watching the Pumpkins’ BBC Maida Vaile performance a few months ago. It’s up there with ‘Widow Make Up My Mind’ (2010), ‘Quasar’ and ‘Violet Rays’ (2012) as one of the very best compositions so far in this expansive Teargarden By Kaleidyscope collection.
‘Being Beige’, the lead single, is unremarkable, particularly for a single. Pearl Jam did that recently with a song called ‘Sirens’; I don’t get it. ‘One and All’, on the other hand, is terrific, dark and brooding, driven by big guitars and pounding drums. ‘Drum + Fife’ is also a terrific, catchy little song that gets properly addictive after two or three listens. ‘Monuments’ is classic Pumpkins, characterised by that idiosyncratic Corgan Gothic/romantic vibe, sounding like something that could’ve been on the Adore album.
Meanwhile ‘Anti-Hero’ feels like it’s related to ‘Monuments’ and ‘One and All’, but is too chaotic and too synthetic-feeling to really have the same effect and isn’t an especially high point to end on.
At just nine tracks, it has to be said that it’s a rather small album, especially for Billy Corgan. If it is, as we’re told, a component of a larger work, I really feel that said larger work should’ve just been released as one whole package, just like Meloncollie was back in 1995. Teargarden By Kaleidyscope could’ve been the Melloncollie of its era. I imagine that had it been done that way, we would have something that would feel much more epic and more potent, and like Melloncollie it could’ve stood out in a big way from everything else going on in music.
Instead what we’re going to have are smaller albums released separately, yet meant to be components of a larger super-album; the problem is it’s never going to be *perceived* as one super-entity this way, but just as a bunch of separate albums.
However, I get that Billy is trying to do something new, something special; and in his mind, he probably feels Meloncollie has been done already and doesn’t need to be repeated. He is a genuine (and self-proclaimed) innovator, after all.
I have to admit, however, that I miss the old band; the classic SP line-up of Darcy, James and Chamberlain. I’m not sure it’s even a musical comment really, but just more a sense of family or continuity. It’s the same problem with Courtney Love having a ‘Hole’ without Eric Erlandson, Patti Schemel (what a drummer) and Melissa Auf de Mer. To be honest though, Courtney’s music suffers more without her old co-conspirators than Billy’s does without his; which indicates that Billy really is/was the essential creative force behind the Pumpkins (we all pretty much knew that though; he famously played all the instruments except drums on Siamese Dream). Maybe it’s just the attitude of a long-time Pumpkins fan.
And I’m not going to do the cliched thing of knocking Tommy Lee either, but… really, Billy? Tommy Lee? Shit, Oscar the Grouch would’ve been more acceptable.
Okay, so I did just knock Tommy Lee. His drumming is actually pretty solid though; as much as it may stick in my throat to have to admit that.
Corgan isn’t any washed-up career rock-star either. Much of his more modern musical output — such as 2012’s Oceania album — has featured some really, genuinely great work. Even this far down the line, he is still both an innovator and a reliable old master of the craft; unlike, say, the Rolling Stones, for example, who’ve been dragging themselves into the studio since the days of Oliver Cromwell and ran out of musical steam decades ago.
Monuments to an Elegy demonstrates this, not on every track, but enough to make the point. Day For Night, the final part of this mammoth project, is expected to be released some time this year.
Billy was apparently pissed about only getting three stars in some mainstream media reviews. That sounds just like him too; reading his own reviews and then being outraged.
Same old Billy Corgan. It would be unendearing… if he wasn’t such a genius.