Love them, hate them

July 1, 2007


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 Chamberlin.

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 misunderstood."

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 title.

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.)
Critic's rating: 2 and a half stars