“Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.”
23 years after Billy Corgan first screamed that line, it doesn’t seem to apply to him anymore. Maybe it never applied to him at all considering he’s acted like he was never in a cage at all. He’s the frontman and architect to one of the biggest alternative rock bands of the last 30 years, dictating practically every decision made about the band and taking it wherever he wanted it go. Even after the Smashing Pumpkins broke up (under his own weight, mind you) Corgan just kept on running around the “cage.” He made his own tea, took photos with cats, ran a wrestling company, made 70s power-pop and weird art rock around the same time. Even when he reunited the Pumpkins (in one form or another) he was never trapped or held down by anyone. So whatever “rage” Corgan has been singing about for so long has been lost for some time. Even more distressing is that as much as he sings about it, he seems to be in no mood to bring it back anytime soon.
Speaking of no mood, it’s time for another new Smashing Pumpkins album! And another semi-reunion! And it’s another first installment in some long-planned project! Oh the joy to be brought from Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1/LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun. On top having such a mouthful of a title that Fiona Apple would side-eye, the Pumpkins’ tenth studio album welcomes back original drummer Jimmy Chamberlin on record since 2007’s Zeitgeist along with original guitarist James Iha since 2000’s Machina II – The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music. The newer additions to the Pumpkins are here too, including longtime guitarist Jeff Schroeder and recent Corgan producer Rick Rubin.
The mammoth production of Rubin and the epic ambition of Corgan are thankfully in small supply on the album’s eight tracks and 32 minutes. It’s the shortest album of in the band’s discography but it certainly doesn’t sound rushed. With the exception of the propulsive groove of “Marchin’ On,” the tracks breeze by with more focus on precision over energy. “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts),” “Travels” and “With Sympathy” reach for U2-levels of the sweeping stadium rock sound with soaring guitar riffs and the occasional Iha solo. Lead single “Solara” takes the Pumpkins back to their alt-rock roots of the Pixies’ quiet-loud dynamic but it never really kicks into a head-banging crescendo. “Alienation” tries for a Siamese Dream-era ballad but stretches its softness too thin. The better ballad is on “With Sympathy” with the mix of electric and acoustic guitar with Corgan’s well-mixed vocals. The Pumpkins’ mix of garage rock and power-pop syncs up best on the AM radio fit “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)” and “Seek and You Shall Destroy” with its winding Metallica-esque riff. It’s very fortunate that the only true misstep is the one that kicks off the album: “Knights of Malta” is a baffling piano rock ballad with laughable “woah woah woah woah woah” backup vocals from Corgan and an overbearing string section. The songs aren’t so much a triumphant comeback but a relaxed test run to see if Corgan, Iha and Chamberlin can still connect on a record together and for the most part, they do.
Lyrically though, this remains Corgan’s showcase for his weird soliloquies about love and alienation and being a shining beacon of nerdiness. As lofty as Corgan’s lyrics seem to be, it adds up to little more than poems written by a high school junior showing off in English class. “Solara” sounds like an anthem for outcasts but doesn’t make too much sense (“Burn down the sun/I’m not everyone/High and dry/Nothing but a body in my mind”) while “Knights of Malta” cheers for the free spirits of the world that he’s looking to guide like some sort of rock wizard (“You’ll just rise on forever/As my halo shines in you/When doldrums age in platinum/I’ve a starship you can use”). Corgan’s “love” songs are baffling in that he can’t seem to balance out the torture his loved one causes him while still being attracted to said object of his desire. On “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts),” Corgan opens with some weird descriptions (“Blur like a rocket/Torch like a dying sun/Snap like a dragon/Dive like a pelican”) and segues into weird verses describing his muse (“Stumbling before you speak/Stunning and stunning and stunning the black/You turn turncoat/Inward to seek out all your hopes/It’s your signals/That hurts me most”). It’s a good thing the music is solid enough to distract from most of the nonsense Corgan puts on wax (“If gods are strong/And cities fraught/Then how am I still here?”).
It’s safe to say that no matter the current iteration, the Smashing Pumpkins do not have the muster that they once had. The world knew that when the hype of Zeitgeist was merely cover for another half-baked Corgan project, the world knew that when Corgan essentially gave up on the Teargarden by Kaleidyscope project, and the world knew it when Corgan made more appearances on TNA Impact TV than recording studios. So the Pumpkins are now officially a legacy act, fine. Knowing that makes Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 easier to take in. The lack of stakes and hype makes the album tolerable. He may have lost his ability to reach his ambitious standards but Billy Corgan still knows how to make solid guitar rock. Lord knows whether or not there will be a Vol. 2 or if Iha and Chamberlin will stick around for this run (let alone if D’arcy Wretzky will be welcomed back), but the Smashing Pumpkins are still around. Still out of the cage with no rage to show.