The Smashing Pumpkins are back after seven years. They've played a handful of shows and their new album is due out in a month. I'm very excited, although I do have my doubts. Perhaps I should explain.
The Smashing Pumpkins were the band of my high school years. I might have been into Nine Inch Nails first, but the Pumpkins remain my favorite band. (This is slightly odd considering that most of my other favorite bands herald from the 80s post-punk scene: The Smiths, Joy Division, Bauhaus, The Cure, Siouxsie & the Banshees, etc.) I think a big part of it was that I got into them right as I was learning to play guitar. Several things converged: I had heard my sister Meredith play many of the songs years before, so there was a sort of nostalgic factor, the band has some of the best guitar work around, there was a guy who tabbed out just about every note ever played by the band (Brian "that tab guy" (obscured)), there are plenty of demos and rarities to hunt down, and their live performances were simply fantastic, only aided by the fact that they change around the sound of their songs all the time. I've spent years listening to their albums, outtakes, demos, b-sides, and live bootlegs, and I've learned to play guitar to almost all of them, and I've covered a countless number of their songs. (In fact, my first two demo albums were solely composed of Pumpkins covers – that's how obsessed I've been.)
However, the big problem here is that I got into the band in 2001 or 2002 – about a year or so after they broke up. I later learned that Billy Corgan was playing guitar for New Order about that time, but they were touring Europe, so I wouldn't have been able to see them anyway. I was there for Zwan's inception and downfall, and I quickly snatched up Corgan's solo album and the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex album too. However, these albums, regardless of their merits, were commercial failures.
One must ask why Corgan and Chamberlin, half of the original members of the Pumpkins, bandmates again in Zwan, and guests on each other's solo albums, are also the only two original Pumpkins to be a part of the reformed band. I haven't heard the new album (Zeitgeist) or the new single ("Tarantula"), but I have downloaded bootlegs of their first and third reunion shows. The setlists are interesting: they are mostly old Pumpkins material with about two thirds of the new album and a new extended jam song not yet released called "Gossamer". It should also be noted that these concerts are about three hours long. (Their festival appearances are usually shorter and feature less older material.)
I really think Billy and Jimmy just like playing their old songs. Much as I love the band, where are James Iha and D'arcy Wretzky? I always liked Iha, but he clearly clashed to some degree with Corgan. Many early Pumpkins songs were cowritten by the two, but after the second album (Siamese Dream) Corgan wrote just about everything with the occasional b-side written by Iha (somewhat explained by the fact that Iha released a solo album in 1998, right before the fourth Pumpkins album, Adore). D'arcy left the band after recording the last album, Machina: the Machines of God and has effectively entirely disappeared. So if those two are entirely out, and half of the original band is good enough for a reunion, Corgan and Chamberlin could be playing material from any of the projects they've been in together – but they aren't. Zwan apparently has too many bad memories or something, and the solo projects must not have gelled well enough or something. But when it comes down to it, which of these configurations has the biggest name, the most fame, the most history, the most nostalgia, the best songs, the biggest fanbase, and the most number of albums sold? Not to be too hard on Corgan and Chamberlin's artistic integrity, but I have to question motives here. Clearly, they aren't going to stop making music. But I think they just want to play their old songs again, but perhaps even more, they want to have the name and fame of their old band back. (Compare the numbers: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, a double album, sold 4.5 million copies in America. Adore was thoroughly scorned but still sold 1.1 million copies, and even Machina sold around 600,000 copies, much more than Zwan's Mary Star of the Sea at something like 300,000-400,000 and Corgan's The Future Embrace at about 70,000. Then consider that if it was just the old songs, Corgan adamantly refused to play Pumpkins songs with Zwan or while solo.)
Anyway, I'll at least briefly discuss the sound of their latest live offerings as represented by their first reunion concert. [Edit 2014.06.18: Just to be clear, I didn't attend this concert, but listened via authorized bootleg.]
Band: The Smashing Pumpkins
Venue: Grand Rex
City: Paris, France
Date: May 22, 2007
01. United States
03. Stand Inside Your Love
04. Bleeding the Orchid
05. Doomsday Clock
10. Bullet with Butterfly Wings
12. For God and Country
16. To Sheila
17. Glass and the Ghost Children
18. Cherub Rock
20. Tonight, Tonight
22. That's the Way (My Love Is)
So I can tell that the new album is going to be at least semi-political and something of a concept album. The cover is a picture of a drowning Statue of Liberty, the translated name of the title (Zeitgeist) means "spirit of the times", and the songs "United States" and "For God and Country" help clue me in. Anyway, though – the performance. It sounds great. Corgan continues to handle the songwriting, singing, and lead guitar and Chamberlin the drums, but a few new members have been drafted to fill in the extra rolls. It is unclear to me if they are actual members or not. (Past touring keyboardists, including Mike Garson, never were considered part of the band. However, to live up to my personal challenge, note that Garson was a part of David Bowie's band, and Bowie worked with none other than Brian Eno a few years later.) In any case, in the live environment, Ginger Reyes plays bass, Jeff Schroeder guitar, and Lisa Harriton keyboards. The old songs sound pretty similar and elicit a lot of applause (or at least so my bootlegs indicate). There are some differences here and there from recorded and past live versions, but nothing really too far out there. The middle of the show features a few songs done solo acoustic: the new "For God and Country", the slightly revamped "Thirty-Three", the old and now-and-then acoustically performed "Rocket", and "Winterlong", which was never played live in the old days, but was recorded on the free, download-only album Machina II. (It's a great album, and it's free. Seriously. But the Pumpkins only got around to playing a few songs from the album, since it was released shortly before their breakup.) [Edit: Actually, it wasn't on Machina II; it was on Judas 0, the b-sides and rarities disc that came with some copies of the greatest hits compilation Rotten Apples.] Also interesting to hear are "Home" (also from Machina II, but played live a few times back in the day) and "Untitled", the so-labelled "farewell song" of the band, never before played live. "Lucky 13", another unplayed Machina II song, has been played at other concerts of the current tour. "Silverfuck" retains its old hyper-extended free-form structure and even includes a tease of the Doors' "The End" like it sometimes used to in the live environment, but it is no now longer the show closer. In the shows they've played so far, it's either closed the first encore or been skipped. With the exception of this first show, the actual closer is the new song "Gossamer", which is something of a twenty-minute jam (not found on the new album), but I don't think it has quite the effectiveness of "Silverfuck", although I can tell that the new song is trying to copy the older song's dynamics and style. (This first show's closer was the fan favorite "Muzzle", but strangely preceded by the good song but oddball choice of "Annie-Dog".)
Speaking of new songs, I've now had the opportunity to hear three-fourths of the new album's songs. I won't discuss them too much until the album comes out, but they're not bad. I might even like them. I don't yet feel like they hold up to the old material, but I might very well change my mind. They mostly sound like a continuation of the sound of Machina or Machina II. I like most of the structures, but they don't sound as nuanced as some of the older songs, although I am aware that that may be due to live limitations. I'll definitely be buying the album when it comes out – no doubt about that. I may even get the probably-unnecessary deluxe version, just because how couldn't I? I think it'll be good. Maybe not great, maybe not as good as the old stuff, but I'm guessing probably better than Zwan, Corgan solo, or the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex (although, I repeat, each of those three projects is not without at least some merit – especially Zwan live). In talking with my friend Keagan a few months back, we discussed how much Corgan has riding on this. When the Pumpkins broke up, he tried a new band. When that didn't work, he tried going solo. When that didn't sell well, he decided to reform his old band. This had better work, for his sake – or well else where he go? I'd hate to see him become the old one-time rock star, releasing mediocre solo outings every few years, but I sure won't be a Mark David Chapman and stop him from doing what he wants. Maybe I just hope the album will be good. It'd be best that way.
[Retrospective Score: B+]