It’s easy to rag on Billy Corgan for being a hypersensitive narcissist who says ridiculous things, but he’s been doing that for two decades now. (The first time I cringed at a Corgan comment? In 1994, when he reportedly said to Kim Thyail, after an uncomfortable interaction with the Soundgarden guitarist, “You hurt me deeply. You hurt me deeply in my heart.”)
But Corgan’s post-’90s music really shouldn’t be judged alongside that aspect of his persona. No, the essential problem with the latter-day Smashing Pumpkins records (starting with 2000’s Machina/The Machines of God) is that they fall prey to what Rob Mitchum — in his review of the band’s 2007 album Zeitgeist — called “the ‘Zero’ dimension.” As Mitchum (accurately) assessed it, Corgan had left behind his band’s softer side, to the music’s detriment.
That was only a problem, of course, to the extent you didn’t enjoy songs from the “Zero” dimension … until the first couple EPs from the Pumpkins’ ambitious Teargarden By Kaleidyscope project emerged in 2010, which suggested not just a nadir for Corgan but popular music in the 21st century. Today, it’s easy to look at the quote-unquote Smashing Pumpkins and look away in disgust: There’s ol’ Charlie Brown (front, center) with a bunch of demographically diverse scrubs, at least two of whom probably never even saw the inside of a studio while the music was being recorded.
He’s made such a mess of things that really, how do you even accurately catalog Corgan’s, um, catalog? The new Oceania is technically the band’s ninth studio LP, but that seems misleading: It leaves out 1994’s Pisces Iscariot, a collection of early non-album tracks that is better than the majority of the music released in the ’90s, yet it includes Machina II/The Friends And Enemies Of Modern Music, which was never released to stores and is plainly an addendum to the more traditionally distributed Machina. And how to account for Teargarden, an ongoing “album” of which Oceania is considered a segment? Furthermore, what about Corgan’s 2005 solo album, TheFutureEmbrace, which shares at least as much DNA with the Pumpkins as the band’s own fourth album, 1998’s Adore, or the lone release from Corgan’s Zwan — 2003’s wildly underrated Mary Star Of The Sea — which shares even more of that DNA?
In terms of its personnel, Oceania may be a “Smashing Pumpkins” album in name only (Corgan is obviously the only original Pumpkin left in the patch), but from a musical perspective, it feels like it deserves that name. The album opens with “Quasar,” and the guitar-bass-drums interplay with which the song begins recalls two other Pumpkins album openers: “I Am One” (from 1991’s Gish) and “Cherub Rock” (from 1993’s Siamese Dream). It’s a far cry from those classics, of course, but it’s a good omen — an announcement that, maybe, Corgan has exited the “Zero” dimension. Like much of the best Smashing Pumpkins work, the album never settles on one sound, although it’s blatantly dreamier and less rat-in-a-cage raging than any other Pumpkins’ LP released this millennium. The album’s entire second quarter — “Violet Rays,” “My Love Is Winter,” One Diamond, One Heart,” and “Pinwheels” — is composed of ballads, but their tones and instrumentation vary (from acoustic guitars to Adore-esque synths). The title track is a proggy marathon that tries to squeeze about half of Melon Collie into its nine minutes. And the album closes on three ferocious guitar-heavy anthems that veer in and out of the “Zero” dimension without getting stuck there. All along, new drummer Mike Byrne serves as a more-than-passable stand-in for departed skinsman (and Corgan’s only real collaborator) Jimmy Chamberlin. The album’s immediate highlight is “The Celestials,” a sweeping, swelling, quiet-loud-quiet ballad that kind of makes me feel like I’m flying; it’s easily the catchiest song Corgan has written since “1979.” (If radio and MTV still existed, they might even play the thing.)
It’s typical to overreact when a once-great artist — previously believed to be deep into his dotage — hits that sweet spot again, but I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic when I say that Oceania is Corgan’s best album since Mary Star Of The Sea, and the best Smashing Pumpkins album since … Melon Collie? (Adore apologists will take exception to this.) He’ll never again reach the heights of those first three albums — who will? — but it’s good to hear, at least, he’s climbing.