Sunday, October 29, 2017

Classic Album Review: Smashing Pumpkins - Zeitgeist (2007)

I note there is a brand new 2017 album out by one William Patrick Corgan. It’s called Ogilala, and it’s produced by Rick Rubin … past master of the unlikely belated comeback album (see Cash, Johnny, and others).

William Patrick is, of course, better known as Billy, frontman of the once brilliant, now largely irrelevant, Smashing Pumpkins. I’m not going to review the new album, which surely amounts to little more than yet another doomed comeback attempt. I don’t really have the stomach for that. But its arrival did remind me that it’s been ten years since the release of Zeitgeist, an album I reviewed (for another site) shortly after it was released. I thought I’d share that review here, and if I’ve incorrectly classified Zeitgeist as a “classic album”, then I’ll ask you to think beyond the square, and consider it a classic example of the “classic” failed comeback album:

There was once a time when Billy Corgan was considered a tortured genius. Now many just consider him a tortured … *insert expletive of choice here*. Which is all a little bit unfortunate, because you’re nothing in popular music if you’re not erm, popular.
For the past, *insert the number of years since Corgan was last relevant*, if not actually a bit longer, Billy Corgan appears to have been intent on destroying any goodwill he’d slowly compiled over the course of the previous decade – using up his popularity credits, if you like. Making outrageous statements, distancing himself from his fanbase with bizarre antics, acting like a prize w*nk on stage, and generally trying to be a wee bit too clever for his own good. Basically pulling off one cunning stunt too many and ending up looking like an anagram of that.

Is it any wonder critics (and many fans) wrote Zeitgeist off from practically the moment it was released?
Then there’s the bit about whether or not Zeitgeist is a genuine Smashing Pumpkins album on account of two missing band members, not the least of whom was key guitarist James Iha. Allow me to clear this one up. Billy Corgan is the Smashing Pumpkins, always has been, and with regular drummer Jimmy Chamberlin back on board, we’d have to err on the side of a quorum even if you don’t accept Corgan’s presence is standalone evidence in itself.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see how Corgan might have conceived this album, or to understand what he was endeavouring to achieve. The title (“zeitgeist” being the moment which captures the “spirit of its time”), its cover sleeve (iconic imagery), its arrangement and structure (complete with the long-winded ‘United States’ centrepiece), its main themes (file loosely under US foreign policy), and most of all Corgan’s massive ego (well documented) all point to the same thing – Zeitgeist, quite clearly, was supposed to be an epic, a triumphant return, a political statement, and perhaps even, gulp, a career defining moment.
Everything about it screams … “take me seriously!” … alas, it tries just a little too hard, and merely succeeds in coming across as too desperate in the end. Billy also forgot the bit about consistency, quality control, and filler. Not only in terms of the music itself; Zeitgeist also falls a long way short of Corgan’s previous standards when it comes to lyrical content.
But, I have to say, even though I do have to keep reminding myself of this, it isn’t all bad.
The opener ‘Doomsday Clock’, and the single ‘Tarantula’ are decent enough. ‘Tarantula’ actually hints at a return to top form, and each track would probably hold its own on any previous Pumpkins album.
The aforementioned ‘United States’ is not without its moments either – with Jimmy Chamberlin’s drumming very much to the fore. ‘United States’ demands a bit of listening and effort, but ultimately it proves a worthwhile exercise.
Sadly, those successes are undermined by Corgan’s worst excesses and indulgences. ‘Starz’ is just plain awful. ‘For God And Country’ is a promising tune ruined by lazy songwriting and dreadful Eighties production, and not for the first time on the album we get a pretty ugly Brian May-esque guitar sound on the closer ‘Pomp And Circumstance’. In fact, it is almost fitting when the album finishes with the sort of solo that would have even Queen fans cringing.
That’s the best and the worst of it, the remainder of the tracks are just ordinary. No more, no less.
Ditto the bland production. No attempts are made to enhance, disguise, or vary Corgan’s whiney nasally voice, with diversity being a key element to the vocals and a past feature on the band’s best output. As for the trademark guitar sound (post-Iha) … well, at times the earnest riffing feels fat and bloated, at other times it's just plain tinny.
The rhythm section – if it can be called that – deserves credit for relentlessly driving each song to conclusion, but again, at times the bass sounds muddy, and despite Chamberlin’s occasional heroics, the lightweight production hardly helps matters. 
Overall, a big disappointment, yes, but perhaps not the career-ending disaster some would have you believe. There are glimpses of promise on Zeitgeist, and if Corgan can channel some of the criticism in a positive way, as opposed to taking it as badly and as personally as he usually does, then he, and the Smashing Pumpkins (sic), are capable of bouncing back.
In the meantime, this one is for a particularly hardy breed of fan only.

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