Billy Corgan is not an easy man to like, but from time to time in his career he’s made some pretty good records. I should make it clear from the start that I’m hardly a Smashing Pumpkins obsessive: I liked the psych-grunge of “Gish” a lot, and I was distinctly impressed by the translation of ambition into a new kind of stadium rock on “Siamese Dream”.
But I’ve always disliked the goth/industrial/Depeche Mode strain that rises to the surface from time to time in Corgan’s songs. Consequently, I found 2005’s solo album, “TheFutureEmbrace”, to be fairly grim going – especially after the shiny power pop of Zwan. Zwan, I think, represented Corgan at his best: ironically, for an artist whose default mode was one of doomy portentousness, the relatively sunny disposition he displayed on many Zwan songs oddly suited him.
There are echoes of this on “Zeitgeist”, the sixth album to be released under the name of The Smashing Pumpkins. “Tarantula”, “That’s The Way (My Love Is)” and “(Come On) Let’s Go!” have the same kind of brash sweetness that made those Zwan songs so punchy and impressive. They’re probably the highlights of this calculated but surprisingly enjoyable record.
Many, of course, will argue that “Zeitgeist” is not a “proper” Pumpkins album, since only Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin figure on it (Chamberlin has stayed loyally at his master’s side through Zwan and the solo fiasco, it should be noted). The argument against this, I guess, is that Corgan is free to call any record he likes a Pumpkins record, since he ran the band like a dictator and did most of the work on all their records anyway.
What Corgan has done here is, I suppose, pretty cynical, reviving his most successful brand name for a steely-eyed return to the sort of eager, bounding stadium rock that established his reputation. It’s hard to like Corgan – all that ego and pretension, the pervasive whiff of naffness – but it is easier at times like this to admire him. There’s a sort of likeably ruthless shamelessness about this whole endeavour, epitomised by the moment in the excellent “Bring The Light” when Corgan (perhaps inspired by the presence of old Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker on his team) turns into Brian May. It’s not ideal, but rather that than the weird Dave Gahan/Uncle Fester hybrid he rocks on less enjoyable records.
The goth instincts this time, it seems, have been channelled into some creaky lyrics that allude vaguely to the general crapness of contemporary geopolitics in the language of adolescent apocalypse-fear – the first song is called “Doomsday Clock”, the second is “7 Shades Of Black”, you get the idea. “United States”, meanwhile, is an epic thrasher that allows Chamberlin to flex his muscles and suggest that drumming is some kind of extreme athletic pursuit.
What “Zeitgeist” proves, ultimately, is that Corgan is at his best when he follows his sunniest, crassest and most commercial instincts. When he tries to express himself as a serious artist and make profound statements, he comes a cropper. When he lets his ambition run rampant, Corgan makes good, exuberant, stadium-ready albums like this one. Come on. let’s go!