There’s a scene in the third season of Mad Men where Don Draper visits his colleague Pete Campbell to convince him to join his new, rogue firm. Before Pete even considers the offer, he demands that Don genuflect before him. Campbell was feeling unappreciated, and he craved credit for his contributions to the firm. He wasn’t wrong to want this, necessarily, but his need for validation made him come off -- yet again -- as deeply unsympathetic.
"Corgan has a deep love for driving people away, but you won’t find that in his music anymore."
Very few musicians get in their own way more often than Billy Corgan. The Smashing Pumpkins mastermind is a songwriting giant and boundary-pushing innovator both sonically -- blending Zeppelin and Boston bombast with shoegazer bliss, post-punk atmosphere and new wave hooks -- and culturally – harnessing the internet as a one-one fan tool long before many of his peers, and giving away an entire album away for free online before many other bands. (Also, Corgan bitched about hipsters long before it became cool.) But his accomplishments are overshadowed by his desire for recognition for those accomplishments. Corgan constantly complains about his old bandmates, old feuds, unappreciative fans and whatever else happens to be bothering him the second before he’s given an opportunity to speak in public. There is no easier way to come off as uncool than to constantly complain about the credit you’re not receiving. A better way to change the situation is to make an album strong enough to prove that your best days are not completely behind you, which is more or less what Corgan has done with the new Smashing Pumpkins album Oceania.
Many reviewers, and of course, Corgan himself, have called Oceania the Smashing Pumpkins' best album since 1995’s double album Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. For the record, Oceania is certainly not better than Adore, the 1998 electronic-folk record the Pumpkins made after the departure of drummer Jimmy Chamberlain. If there was a force on this planet that could make Corgan limit an album to just 50 minutes I would be willing to call Adore his masterpiece, but it’s certainly too good to be swept away with the ongoing return to form narrative that seems to be emerging. But anyway, Oceania is certainly better than the albums he’s cut since, including the overcooked Machina/The Machines Of God, the monochromatic Zeitgeist and the forgettable things he did inbetween breaking up the Smashing Pumpkins and reuniting with Chamberlain a few years later.
Corgan recorded Oceania with the back-up musicians (guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Nicole Fiorentino, drummer Mike Bryne) he’s been road testing for the past few years, and it shows. There’s a fluid push and pull in these tunes that’s been missing in the overly cut-and-paste studio-constructed Pumpkins bangers of recent vintage. “Quasar” and “The Chimera” breathe easier and dart around corners quicker, but are just as impactful as anything off of Gish. And while eyebrows were raised when Corgan sacked Chamberlain and replaced him with someone who wasn’t even born when their debut was released, the kid can play. Like Chamberlain, Bryne is the engine that drives many of these songs, navigating through the tricky rhythmic turns Corgan favors while sweating hard enough to keeping his fills on equal footing with his boss’s riffs.
The warm, lived in quality of Oceania makes it the most appealing album on a sonic level Corgan has made in quite a while. Special credit should go to Tool/King Crimson regular Dave Bottrill, who gives the album a mix that showcases the layered melodies without flattening things out with the chintzy, “huge” sounding compression found on most modern hard rock releases. But what puts Oceania over is that the angst and hard rock riffage Corgan foregrounded on Zeitgeist and many of the free tracks he gave away through his absurdly named Teargarden by Kaleidyscope free singles program has been dialed back to just one part of larger symphony. No longer boiled down to just riff-delivery systems, the guitars here wander in to colorful psychedelic realms on “The Celestials” and “Panopticon,” and full-on “Drown” worthy skronk on the title track, while Corgan seems to have rediscovered his love of oscillating keyboard wooshes on “Pinwheels” and dream-pop bliss on “The Chimera.” (Most of these song titles are New Age woo, but let's ignore that.)
Corgan has a deep love for driving people away, but you won’t find that in his music anymore. Instead, Oceania is concerned with trying to connect, be it with a lover, a higher power or anything that can get you out of the self-pitying hamster wheel in your head, there’s an optimistic sense here that people can transcend some of their baggage and learn to let people in with enough hard work and soul searching. There’s a few songs near the back half that have the right sound but lack memorable hooks, but it wouldn’t be a Billy Corgan album if it wasn’t too long and overstuffed. There’s just some habits the man can’t break. But maybe there’s a few that he’s learning to put behind him.
Oceania is out now. Stream it via Soundcloud.