Friday, July 20, 2007

The Smashing Pumpkins - Zeitgeist (2007)

As I more or less promised in my earlier post about The Smashing Pumpkins' return to the stage after seven years, I bought the new album, Zeitgeist, as soon as I could, and I meant to review it before leaving for Michigan, but I failed on that account. Now I am ready to make amends. I've listened through the album multiple times already, I've read through the lyrics, and I've listened to several more live bootlegs from the tour. There's a lot to discuss.

Artist: The Smashing Pumpkins
Album: Zeitgeist
Release Date: 10 July 2007
Label: Reprise Records
Producers: Billy Corgan, Jimmy Chamberlin, Terry Date, Roy Thomas Baker

01. Doomsday Clock
02. 7 Shades of Black
03. Bleeding the Orchid
04. That's the Way (My Love Is)
05. Tarantula
06. Starz
07. United States
08. Neverlost
09. Death from Above [available only on the Japanese, Best Buy, and versions]
10. Bring the Light
11. (Come On) Let's Go!
12. Stellar [available only on the iTunes version]
13. For God and Country
14. Pomp and Circumstances
15. Zeitgeist [available only on the Target and Müller versions]
[Edit: To further mess with fans, Best Buy reissued the album four months after the initial release with a black and white cover and yet another bonus track, "Ma Belle", along with "Stellar", "Death from Above", and a bonus DVD.]

The first thing you may notice is that depending on what version of the album you get, you may or may not get various bonus tracks. This is perhaps the worst marketing decision the band could have made. Presumably, actually, it wasn't the band's call, since other recent releases on the Reprise label have been released in a similarly confusing manner, such as Pete Yorn's Nightcrawler. In any case, what a horrible way to screw over consumers and independent record stores. I'm not going to buy three versions of an album. That's stupid. I thought I could get around it by buying the exclusive iTunes track, maybe finding the "Tarantula" single, which has "Death from Above" on the b-side, and getting the Target version, but in turns out you have to buy the whole album on iTunes to get the bonus track. Lame. I still got the Target version (the first and last album I will ever buy there), and I cheated to get the other two tracks. I admit it, but I don't care – I want my music and I already put enough money down. Anyhow, because each version has it's own unique color, my copy actually looks like this:

I really can't why imagine the band would do that. If they weren't entirely confident of the tracks or something, why not do what Brian Eno would do sometimes and add the tracks to the end as an "appendix"? The fact that there are five album cover colors (the HMV version has a green cover (but no extra tracks) in addition to the standard red, Target/Müller purple, iTunes blue, and Japanese/Best Buy/ yellow) is pretty unnecessary, and I doubt the value of the sixth (!) version, containing 76-page booklet. I passed on the idea of paying $10 or so for the extra album art and instead found a place online with scans of the extra artwork; I'm not missing too much:

I think I'll proceed to the music itself. "Doomsday Clock" is a good opener, with Chamberlin's all-over-the-place drumming leading into Corgan's trademark multi-layered guitar storm, distorted in the same vein as his self-labelled "cybermetal" staple, "Zero". It works here. There's some vocal multi-tracking in the choruses, which isn't particularly something I remember from older Pumpkins output, but it shows up a lot on Zeitgeist. The lyrics are Corganesque but cover a new topic not usually hit by the man: contemporary politics. The words and seriously depressing: "I'm certain of the end / it's the means that has me spooked" and then "I'm guessing I'm born free, silly me / I was meant to beg from my knees".

"7 Shades of Black" is similarly cybermetalish and also has dark, foreboding lyrics, but compared to "Doomsday Clock", the words here are more vague. It's hard to tell exactly what's going on, but the chorus line of "'cause I want you bad" sound lame unless I think of them in a greater context (perhaps he's talking about liberty, his rights, something like that). Not a great song, but not bad either.

"Bleeding the Orchid" has a little wordless double-tracked vocal intro that's pleasant, and I love the heavy guitar sound that dominates most of the song. The verses with the lighter guitars are a welcome relief from continual distorted onslaught, but the main vocalizations and guitar sound are great. I haven't figured the lyrics out yet, really, but I'm continuing to sense a dark mood.

"That's the Way (My Love Is)" is supposed to be the second single, released in September. This song has less overtly loud guitars, thankfully, and as always, the tones Corgan pulls off sound great. Some keyboard shines through in the background, to good effect. The lyrics focus on love, obviously, but Corgan loves to talk about love in a bigger, grander, perhaps even somewhat spiritual way. The mood of the album shines through, but mostly the lyrics concern a sort of semi-generic romantic love.

"Tarantula", the first single, has more loud, cybermetal guitars, but certain parts feature palm muting or some great harmonic work (as witnessed in the intro). A weak point is the bridge where the music quiets down except for one dramatic lead guitar. It feels forced and obvious, but if the guitar wasn't so blatant, it wouldn't sound bad. The lyrics follow the trend: "I don't want to fight / every single night" and "we are surreal / because someone gave us up". It's not a bad song but could perhaps be better.

The first painful song title comes with "Starz", which continues the trend Corgan set on his solo album, 2005's The Future Embrace, which featured the song "Strayz". What's the the Zs? These aren't words! "Starz", though, is somewhat brighter than some of the other songs. The obvious line is "we are stars" but lines like "don't you know we cannot die", "Heaven is everywhere", and "we forget we are free" also clue me in. There is some positive attitude here, something about surviving through whatever turmoil there is in the world. There's also a weird name-check of Hendrix's "Purple Haze", but more importantly, a bit of negativism here and there: "torn from god and flung towards night / don't you want what I can't fight". The music alternates medium-soft guitars with very loud guitars, throws in some crazy drumwork, a bit of keyboard, and some harmonics.

"United States" appears to be a key track. It lasts for almost ten minutes and seems to be the only really epic, truly dynamic piece on the album. There are several clear parts to it, from the extended percussive intro, the loud guitar riff, the first verses and choruses, the spacey interlude, some jamming, some more verses and choruses, and a loud, extended jam section to close things out. The main chorus part is "revolution / revolution / revolution blues / what will they do", which not only references an obscure Neil Young song ("Revolution Blues" off On the Beach), but makes it clear what's going on here. Corgan wants some change, but doesn't know what's going to happen. Like "Starz", there is hope: "I've got to survive / freedom shines the light ahead". The loud later chorus part more or less repeats "I want to fight a revolution", laying it down straight. There are plenty of guitar riffs here, and many things going on. I love the almost chime-sounding cleaner guitar that strums once per riff repetition in the beginning, but to make up for that is the unnecessary production effect of the delayed repeats of the last words of the last few lines, complete with the clichéd lowering of pitch with each repeat. I do like, though, that in some of the live performances, Corgan starts playing the "Star Spangled Banner" during his tremolo-effects-laden guitar section in the middle of the mid-song drum break.

"Neverlost" has some strong keyboards all over it, and the quieter sound is quite welcome; on the standard album, it is one of two songs without any cybermetally guitars. There are some chorus parts that have a bit more volume, but they aren't overdone or as loud as most of the other songs. The lyrics combine Corgan's normal spiritual/love sort of thing with the dark mood of the album. "Death from Above" is another quieter song, loaded with keyboards and pulsing, driving beat. Of course, it's really only available on a few versions of the album and the "Tarantula" single, but it's a great track. The title appears all over the lyrics, and I'm not quite sure what it means other than talking about something like divine retribution or a supernatural force striking down a person, perhaps at the instigation of another.

"Bring the Light" starts off great with some keyboard and lighter, muted guitar but then amps up to the cybermetal standard of the album. It switches between the two sounds throughout. This song feels like it could be a single. It's a rather good song and exactly what I think could be on the radio. I again think these lyrics reflect hope shining through: "if you just want to survive / go grab a glimpse of any star in heaven's high / I never felt so real and loved and alive / no shadows follow me unsung". There's some good guitar workouts, and I think the song works very well.

"(Come On) Let's Go!" gets my vote for worst song title, following Zwan's trend of bad titles with exclamation marks. (Zwan was Corgan and Chamberlin's band after the first Pumpkins breakup, if you didn't know, and their lone album, Mary Star of the Sea contains two titles even worse than "(Come On) Let's Go!": "Baby, Let's Rock!" and "Yeah!" Ugh.) This is one of the somewhat weaker songs; there's less going on, more of the same, and although the lyrics do fit the mold, they feel a bit more forced and bland: "c'mon let's go / beyond the great unknown", "anesthetized I'm hollow / playing to the dark back row". I almost wonder if this song or "Neverlost" have to do with reforming the band or something.

"Stellar", the iTunes bonus track, keeps up the to the quality level of the rest of the album. The song is noticeably less loud, with more medium-volume guitars and keyboards. It's somewhat longer and features a little mid-song softer break section. The song fits in well, although the lyrics are a bit more of a stretch to the theme: there's more of a sense of religious discussion: "the wait hurts worse than the blows" and more obviously, "is it wrong to say / there's God and there's faith?". Is Corgan differentiating between God and faith or just defending his beliefs? I think I'll return to this topic.

"For God and Country" is another song that detracts from the loud formula throughout much of the album in favor of some quieter bits, more keyboard, and some different guitar tones. The placement near the end of the album feels appropriate: the song seems to admit that there are problems but they should be worked with, and ultimately, the good is worth fighting for: "for God and country I'll fight / for God and country I'll die", and even better: "I want to live where no one's watching my way home / I want to give until I'm bursting with unknown". In case you aren't aware that there are problems, Corgan pleads: "It's time to wake up!" but then says "I can't help you though I should". Hmmm, sounds like internal conflict to me!

"Pomp and Circumstances" has an orchestral sound, with its string-synths and cymbal crashes. The song again seems to reflect the times: "what was once praised now wrong", "don't we face / war, sunshine and grace", and so on. The lyrics are totally politically loaded, but aren't painful. Somewhat more painful is the total sound of the song; it feels a bit overdone, and the predictable loud solo guitar doesn't help.

Then comes the total exception, only if you have the Target / Müller (a German pharmacy chain) version: the solo acoustic title track, "Zeitgeist". I never knew that Corgan had a solo acoustic side, really, until I started digging deep into Pumpkins catalog, namely the "Tonight, Tonight" b-sides and some demos and live shows around the Adore and Machina eras. Then I noticed that Zwan had some Corgan solo bits, too (such as "My Life and Times", a song I rather liked that appeared in fragments on the Mary Star of the Sea DVD), among the many acoustic concerts the band did (despite few of those songs seeing release). When I heard about Corgan going solo, I thought he might do something like that, and initially, his 2004 one-off concert at the Metro led me to believe that – he played fourteen acoustic songs about Chicago, which he said he'd make a DVD out of but never did. Then The Future Embrace came out and it was all electronic. Here, finally, the acoustic side sees official release. Note, though, that as of late in concert, Billy has been playing acoustic songs at every show: "Thirty-Three", "Rocket", some other favorites, and then a series of newly-written songs (not including "Zeitgeist", but including "For God and Country" and others written on the road). Of all the songs on the album, I would say this song is not the most representative of the titular word. However, the chorus bit ("lost on this road, are there any real Sundays to find? / lost on this road, are there any real souls?") is a bit foreboding. I like the song, though. It works well and makes a better conclusion than the too-dramatic "Pomp and Circumstances".

Before I make the general review, a few comments. What's with Billy's sudden religious obsession? He used to write songs like "I Am One", "Zero", and "God" that were never outright religious or anti-religious, but clearly removed from the field and more detached or vaguely spiritual at times. I felt very comfortable with those lyrics, considering my own beliefs. The final commercial Pumpkins album pre-breakup (Machina) was even subtitled The Machines of God in a sort of giant storyline that was almost pagan. The opening track, "The Everlasting Gaze" featured the line "the fickle fascination of an everlasting god" (with that exact capitalization in the liner notes), which, no matter you take it, isn't very nice. Then Zwan comes out with Mary Star of the Sea, a direct reference to Mary, the (Christian) mother of God. The title track was medleyed with the traditional song "Jesus, I" ("Jesus, I've taken my cross / all to leave and follow thee"), and the album also featured "Declarations of Faith" ("I declare myself / declare myself of faith"). Pretty clear. In concert they'd even do the traditional "God's Gonna Set This World on Fire", and Corgan credited himself on the album as Billy Burke, an evangelist.

Corgan's solo album was less obviously religious, but Zeitgeist has spiritual references all over ("For God and Country"...), and the first people Corgan thanks in the liner notes are "God, Jesus Christ, [and] Mother Mary." I don't know how much that really means, though, considering that the band also thanks Paris Hilton, but I think that's because she's on the cover of the "Tarantula" single, frighteningly enough:

I've got to say, Zeitgeist ain't a bad album. In fact, it's pretty good. It doesn't live up to the glory days, though, no matter what album you like best (with the possible, but still unlikely, exception of Machina). The electronics don't prevail quite as much as Adore or Machina, and it simply doesn't have the grunge of Gish, but more importantly, it unfortunately lacks the guitar mastership and structural wonders of Siamese Dream and the epic scope and varied sound of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The main problem is that the album basically sounds like "Zero" and maybe some "Ava Adore", and that's about it. There isn't much in the way of dynamics. It's loud, full of distorted electric guitars, and uncompromising. There are a few slower or softer songs, but outside of "Neverlost", they're all bonus tracks not available on the general release. "United States" and a few other songs have slower or softer sections, which helps, but other than that song, none of them have the scope and vision of songs like "Thru the Eyes of Ruby" or "Soma" or many other wonderful, longer pieces. In fact, outside of "United States" and "Death from Above", every song is around three to four minutes long, which is kind of boring. (Oddly, the concert-only "Gossamer" is an extremely long (15-30+ minutes) super-dynamic piece, going all over the place.)

Also, the keyboards don't even show up until the fourth track. They do become more prominent as the album continues, culminating in the nearly guitar-less "Pomp and Circumstances", but the dominant sound is just plain loud, "cybermetal" guitars. Jimmy Chamberlin's drumming is great, thankfully, and that spices things up and keeps some of the Pumpkin feel. But there isn't quite enough variety going on. I always admired Corgan's ability to whip up all sorts of guitar tones, but here, he sticks to a more limited selection.

One still has to ask about the legitimacy of this reunion, as I did in my previous article about the live shows. The liner notes make it clear in the credits: "Jimmy Chamberlin: Drums / Billy Corgan: All the Rest". Huh. There is a live band, but the album is mostly Billy. The two members thankfully weren't the sole producers, but I think Corgan exerts enough control over any producer to basically do whatever he wants. I wish D'arcy or James Iha were back to makes things more balanced (I'd even take the temporary replacement back in the day for D'arcy, Melissa auf der Maur). Honestly, this could be a Zwan reunion, except that Corgan gave up on his bright, cheerier attitude and shimmering, bright guitars, even the ones that appeared on Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie. More accurately, this is just Corgan's second solo album, with Chamberlin upgraded from part- to full-time drummer. (He played on one song on The Future Embrace, just as Corgan sang one song on the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex's Life Begins Again.)

Anyway. So this is definitely a concept album. The album cover with the drowning Statue of Liberty and sinking/rising sun, coupled with the title, should make it obvious, but the lyrics and song titles prove it true. I'm alright with that. Sometimes the lyrics stretch too much or get a bit bad, but not really much worse than Corgan ever was in the first Pumpkins incarnation. (His Zwan lyrics weren't very good, and his solo album was just difficult to figure out, although not bad.) He still has his general collection of spiritualism (now more pronounced) and love (in whatever sense), but now it's wrapped around the state of the nation, the zeitgeist. There you have it. It's a good album, but not great. My expectations weren't too high because I feared for the worst, and this isn't at all the worst, just not the best, either.

Score: B-

Logic: Corgan is capable of better, and he's using the Pumpkins name for questionable reasons and with questionable fairness. However, I can't deny liking the album and enjoying listening to the recent concerts, which are filled with old songs, several of which are yet again rearranged ("Blue Skies Bring Tears" and "Heavy Metal Machine" (complete with some lines borrowed from Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit"!) most notably), plus some obscurities ("Translucent", available only on the Mashed Potatoes bootleg, some previously-unplayed Machina II songs) and new, written-on-the-road material, which progresses from show to show. Maybe I'll do another concert review. Anyway. Don't worry too much about it, it's really not a bad album. Just don't set your bar too high.


Anonymous said...

I asked Chuck Klosterman at a book reading if this record (specificly the cover art combined with the political satire employed so great) made Billy Corgan 'advanced'. He said doing this was kind of overt, so i asked what it would take for billy to be advanced. he said billy should grow a full head of hair and play folk asongs again

Patti said...

Can you even picture Corgan with hair anymore? I mean, he still had a full head during the Mellon Collie initial photo shoots. In any case, I'd love it if he grew his hair and played folk songs. I like his acoustic work.

Humor aside, the 60s hippies and cohorts were also overt and I don't know if they were all advanced. But it would be quite an advance for Billy. A humorous thought, though, certainly.

Anonymous said...

An excellent review. I largely agree.