Smashing Pumpkins Are a Shadow of Their Former Self on ‘Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1’
Smashing Pumpkins were a definitive ‘90s phenomenon. There was a period when it somehow became in vogue for singers to sound alarmingly nasal — think Liam Gallagher, Alanis Morissette, etc. The Pumpkins were in many ways grunge’s last call, and they stood out from the rest with a lyricism and theatricality that commanded attention. Ever since the peak of “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” an era-defining record, the band has taken on such disparate forms that they have become hardly identifiable as a band. Singer Billy Corgan has kept the Pumpkins brand active through the years, with patchy releases, peppered with moments of genius. Now, he has reunited with most of the band’s classic lineup — guitarist James Isha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. The new album, “Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun” half lives up to its title. There are moments with the lustre of the band’s classic sound, that will have old fans swooning and salivating, but overall, the effort can come across as a bit stale and half-baked.
“Knights of Malta” begins with a rather awkward “Woah-woah-woah.” Let’s pause to consider that Billy Corgan is a singer that has defied all odds, singing in a voice so alien to the commercial standard that his mainstream success serves as a testament to the unrecognized open-mindedness of the public at large. That said, this “Woah-woah” stuff is a bit hard to digest. Corgan sounds like he’s pushing the envelope in the wrong direction. The song goes on to include “soulful” backup singers and a string section. It’s an epic expression of something that seems to lack a core worthy of such magnification.
“Silvery Somethings (Ghosts)” begins with a guitar tone and overall sonic feel that evokes “Siamese Dream”-era Pumpkins. “Travels” finds Corgan musing over vagaries in Syd Barrett-style simplicity, with lyrics like, “See love, see time / See death, see life,” before resolving, as if in revelation, “It’s where I belong.” Does he mean in the Smashing Pumpkins? Let’s remember that there was a period in which Corgan was the only remaining member of the band, and declared himself “Smashing Pumpkins.” It seems to have worked out, as Iha and Chamberlin came back on board. At this point, one can’t be blamed for having an overall lukewarm reaction to this set of songs, but come the chorus of “Solara,” old school Pumpkins fans will feel a rush of nostalgia-rich exhilaration that represents the “dream of the ‘90s” more than the original Portlandia theme song.
“Marchin’ On” showcases the band in stellar form. Corgan seems in one of his paroxysms —imagine the most raging moments of “Zero,” or better yet, “An Ode to No One.” The other members sound comparably in character. Iha plays rounded-off metal, and Chamberlin throws in wild fills. “With Sympathy” stands out for how rich the guitars sound, wide and panned. There’s also an epic, life-affirming lyric, in the context of which the entire album takes on a certain light. Corgan sings, “For the love of irony / Let’s love, oh let’s love.” When a band reunites, it’s easy to fall into a sort of routine that chases past glories in a way that borders on self-parody. The mere mention of irony functions as something of a disclaimer — in case the music strikes you as trite, it’s meant to do so. “Seek and You Shall Destroy” is a somewhat underwhelming closer. Unlike “Marchin’ On,” on which you can hear the band’s momentum, in real time, and all the elements blend seamlessly, this song seems stilted and perfunctory.
“Shiny and Oh So Bright” has moments that will make fans gush up, moments that remind us why the Smashing Pumpkins are an extraordinary band. At other points, the band comes across as half-heartedly churning out renditions of the tried and tested. Still, the good bits are good enough to make for an enjoyable, evocative listen.
“Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun” is available Nov. 16 on Apple Music.