Merriam-Webster defines "zeitgeist" as "the general intellectual, moral and
cultural climate of an era." Sure enough, when the Smashing Pumpkins' new
album arrives in stores on July 10, fans will hear Chicago's reunited
alternative-rock superstars spending more time sizing up the state of the
world than they ever did the first go 'round, when the emphasis was usually
on looking inward.
The centerpiece of "Zeitgeist" -- musically, conceptually and in terms of
its position midway through the 12 songs on the official album (which is
being issued in different versions with different bonus tracks for different
chain retailers) -- is an epic called "United States," propelled by the
familiar vocal whine and fiery guitar heroics of Billy Corgan, the band's
driven auteur, and the complex but rolling rhythms of drummer Jimmy
The song tackles a heck of a big subject, but it's a heck of big song:
nearly 10 minutes long on album, and even more dramatic onstage at recent
European concerts, when Corgan threw in some of Jimi Hendrix's version of
"The Star-Spangled Banner." The Great Pumpkin doesn't have anything
particularly profound to say about the State of the Union, and he hasn't
entirely overcome his self-obsession. "Revolution, revolution, revolution
blues," he moans. "What will they do to me?"
But Corgan's lyrics have always been obtuse, with words chosen as much
for emotional effect as specific meaning, and the overall message is that
we're in the midst of two wars, global warming and the erosion of our
freedoms, and it's time to get off our butts and do something. "I want to
fight, I want to fight / A revolution tonight," he sings. "Let me do
something good / Let me prove something real like I should / Let me embrace
every single living thing / Let me embrace every single moment I ever
Yep, it sure sounds like the Pumpkins of yore, veering wildly from
laser-focused precision to wretched over-indulgence, and from pretentious,
preachy pronouncements to simple declarations of heartfelt sincerity -- all
in one messy and confusing package that will prompt as many people to hate
them as love them.
Which brings us to another reason why "Zeitgeist" is an appropriate
Corgan always has played with double meanings, symbols and signifiers,
and he's certainly aware the title also makes the point that his brooding
solipsism and tormented angst was in step with the mood of a generation in
the '90s. But as Lou Reed once sang, "Those were different times." The
Pumpkins care about different things now. The question is whether as many
people will still care about them.
Never say never
The 40-year-old bandleader certainly hopes to reconnect with the masses, and
that's the best reason to explain his abrupt turnaround about playing under
the Pumpkins' moniker again. Unlike most of his alternative peers, he was
never afraid of being a rock star; indeed, it often seemed as if he couldn't
live without it. The last time we spoke, sitting outside his North Shore
mansion in June 2005 before the release of his electronic solo album "The
Future Embrace," he envisioned a career akin to Neil Young's. He promised a
diverse array of sounds on many solo albums to come, and he swore he'd never
reunite the Pumpkins.
"What's unfortunate about what we would call a second act of a career is
that if you don't continue to exploit your past or let them knock you around
and turn you into what they think you should be, they basically stick their
boot in the back of your neck," Corgan said.
But "The Future Embrace" prompted a critical and commercial yawn, just
like "Mary Star of the Sea" (2003) by the short-lived Zwan. The solo
acoustic album Corgan recorded live in Chicago remains unreleased, and he
never finished his song cycle about the city's history. The public didn't
seem to care about Billy Corgan as much as it cared about the Smashing
Pumpkins, even if the two had been synonymous.
Ever contradictory and always inscrutable, the artist placed a full-page
newspaper ad the same day he released his first solo album, announcing he
was putting the band back together and soliciting his former mates to join
him. Chamberlin was the only one who answered the call; guitarist James Iha
and bassist D'arcy Wretzky are still missing in action, now replaced onstage
by some little-known hired hands (bassist Ginger Reyes, guitarist Jeff
Schroeder and keyboardist Lisa Harriton).
Although Corgan spent most of the '90s insisting the Pumpkins were a
band, it was always obvious he not only wrote and sang the vast majority of
songs, but he played almost everything except drums in the studio. He
admitted as much when the group broke up, and he lashed out at his mates for
betraying him because they didn't care as much or work as hard as he did
(though he's clearly forgiven Chamberlin). So what exactly does he mean when
he calls this new group the Smashing Pumpkins? We've come to the final layer
of meaning for "Zeitgeist."
Echoes of the past
Corgan clearly believes the name connotes a certain sound, albeit a diverse
one. More importantly it signifies an approach to making music that is as
much about changing the world as changing oneself. The defining moment of
his artistic life was playing to tens of thousands of likeminded souls each
night at the height of the Lollapalooza nation, and he isn't going to be
happy unless he attains that peak again.
Will "Zeitgeist" accomplish that? Damned if I know, but I was always put
off by the band's bombast as often as I was impressed by its beauty. For me,
its finest moments were never the relentlessly rocking "Gish" (1991), the
melodically insidious "Siamese Dream" (1993) or the meandering epic "Mellon
Collie and the Infinite Sadness" (1995), but the relatively simpler and
straighter "Adore" (1998) and the intentionally self-parodying "Machina/The
Machines of God" (2000).
Few Pumpkins diehards agree with me, so keep that in mind when I say that
the more rollicking and bombastic big-rock songs -- the ponderously ominous
"Doomsday Clock" and "7 Shades of Black" (both inferior to Pumpkins-inspired
offspring My Chemical Romance), the plodding "Orchid" and the much
ballyhooed but overblown single "Tarantula" -- leave me cold the way most
arena-bound lite-metal does.
More rewarding are the more direct, more melodic songs such as "That's
the Way" and the material from the second half of the album, following
"United States." Here, on quieter tunes such as "Never Lost," "Bring the
Light" and "For God and Country," the musicians skillfully incorporate more
textures (electronic marimbas, plucking strings-like sounds, layered vocals
and such) and subtle nuances, forwarding the efforts to broaden the basic
Pumpkins sound -- some successful, some failed -- that we heard with Zwan
and "The Future Embrace."
On the rest of the disc, the group offers well-crafted but ultimately
hollow and lazy echoes of the past, much as U2 did on its last two albums.
We've been here before, and while it's not bad, they did it better in the
past. The zeitgeist has moved on.
The Smashing Pumpkins, "Zeitgeist" (Warner Bros.)