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Thursday, 26 July 2007

Review: Zeitgeist

Billy Corgan (pictured in pseudo-sacrilegious pose) is the frontman - one wants to say evil genius - of Smashing Pumpkins - who were, after Nirvana, the major American alternative band of the 1990s.

This isn't just conjecture or opinion - though I want to stop here and coin an aphorism: fashions change, taste remains bad. SP saw their 1995 madly-ambitious magnum opus, Melancolie and the Infinite Sadness, go to number one at Billboard, following up on what I consider their greatest album (indeed, the greatest popular music album of the last 16 or so years, other than In Utero) - the sublime Siamese Dream.

SD meshed and mashed a variety of influences and styles, to gloriously evoke the head-rush of unchained rock guitar (often derided as "noodling") and adolescent vulnerability - so that the songs work together to present a landscape of teen isolation that is both defiantly itself and openly wounded by past abuses ("Disarm"); but the work is not altogether morose, and explodes into joy in a few triumphant places, notably on "Today", which slowly builds into one of the truest pop dream anthems ever penned and performed: "Today is the greatest day I've ever known / can't wait until tomorrow... I want to turn you on, I want to turn you on, I want to turn you on, I want to turn you on... " Corgan intones - echoing John Lennon, of course, but seizing that particular torch-role for himself.

I was in my 20s when I first heard Siamese Dream. It was in a blizzard waiting for a bus in St-Lambert, and at the stop a high school girl offered it to me by way of her Walkman. Here, she said, try this. I swooned, and knew I was in the presence of alternative aural opium.

This led me to Pisces Iscariot, and the impressive, long, psychedelic march of "Starla" and other later works, but nothing was better than that, except, perhaps, for "Love" (4 minutes and 21 seconds of thrilling love-torn bile) on Melancolie. So, we come to the somewhat maligned new album after seven years in the wilderness. Some critics have been quick to mock Corgan and cohorts, forgetting, in their pimply youth, who they're dealing with. Legends and true trail-blazers. But, despite the reports from the prematurely jaded young, Zeitgeist is a very good album.

Indeed "Bleeding The Orchid" is arguably one of the five best Pumpkins songs. Corgan is being attacked for mostly sticking to his well-known vocal and musical style - his guns. One startling, disturbing style is enough for any genius to pioneer. Corgan is surely as gifted and tortured as Cobain (without the death). One wonders what would have happened if Nirvana had muddled through and released an album 16 years after Nevermind - how kind would the scribes of Q be?

Zeitgeist is dreamy, obsessed, overblown, sneering, driven (those drums, those guitars!) and very cool. It is also full of memorable melodies. Opener "Doomsday Clock" is vintage Pumpkins. "That's The Way (My Love Is)" is as sweet as "1979" and nearly as catchy. What more can be asked for? "Neverlost" is smooth and effecting. On "Bring The Light" Corgan even extends his vocal styling to sound more plaintive, less nasal. The big elephant in the room is the mammoth near-ten-minute "United States" (this is a concept album, after all) with its Blue Öyster Cult heavy-metal ponderings; the drumming is driven like heil-stones. It rawks. Penultimate "For God And Country" has a Bowie feel, if Bowie had worked with later Depeche Mode - it's synth-infused and somewhat programmatic, but also basically infectious as an anti-anthem. "(Come On) Let's Go!" is a dancy, swerving jeune-Eliotic invocation that wouldn't be out of place on Neon Bible. Vaguely maudlin closer "Pomp and Circumstances" (a weaker effort, like mediocre Prince) is excessive, with gongs and reverb that rhyme Corgan's life-story with, indeed, history, and frankly grandiose aesthetics, and perhaps (personal) politics - but what's not to like about large musical egos? Did anyone suggest Wagner limit himself to modest tunes on the penny-whistle?

Okay, it'd be nice to have D'Arcy and James Iha back. But when the clock is so close to midnight, it can't be turned back that far. On that note, when Corgan sings "it's lonely at the top" he means in America, too (see the album's cover) - and, while it may be easy to lampoon his concern with socio-political realities in the air, he's caught the 07 mood well. Eyewear gives the album four and a half specs.
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