Despite Corgan's Rage, ‘Zeitgest’ Can’t Engage

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The Smashing Pumpkins “reunion” was a dubious concept from the get-go, since the new incarnation of the band features no more original members than Zwan did. But listening to Zeitgeist, the first official entry into the band’s catalog since 1999’s disastrous Machina/The Machines of God, one gets the sense that because Billy Corgan more or less is every band he’s ever been a part of—from the songwriting process to a vast majority of the recorded performances—the Pumpkins are to him more of a concept than an actual band, one that gives him creative license to brazenly mine the depths of self-loathing, stadium art rock all over again.

That’s a hard concept to translate, though, especially when you take out a full-page ad in the Chicago Tribune, proclaiming, “I want my band back, and my songs, and my dreams.” But two years after his initial announcement, after James Iha, D’arcy Wretsky and even Melissa Auf der Mar have come forward saying they were not involved in the reunion, it has become obvious that Corgan meant more about the dreams part than he did about getting his band back together and reconciling their differences.

So even if there’s nothing particularly novel about the fact that Zeitgeist is mostly a Corgan solo project (save, of course, for longtime drummer Jimmy Chamberlain), the dome-headed one’s brazen egotism often taints this effort in a way that’s hard to ignore. Corgan’s My Bloody Valentine-inspired wall of guitar distortion, for instance, which was used to great effect on Siamese Dream (and even Mellon Collie), appears here as a tidal wave of cheese metal schlock, so ham-fisted and over the top that it’s more open for a Freudian reading (what’s he compensating for?) than it is apt to raise a pulse. And if not the guitars, it’s Corgan’s liberal application of his own nasally voice, stacked track for track on top of itself, as it is on “Starz.”

Excess has always been a part of the band’s sound, though, and to a certain extent, it’s part of the appeal. No one’s going to call the band’s old material like “Cherub Rock” or “Geek U.S.A.” modest rock songs, but they hit with such force that it’s easy to overlook Corgan’s shortcomings. And he does manage to get it right a few times on Zeitgeist with tracks like “Tarantula,” which could pass for an old Pumpkins tune, or “Bleeding the Orchid,” a rare moment that harkens back to the band’s psychedelic roots, which were gradually phased out over the course of the band’s career in favor of Corgan’s fascination with future metal.

The problem then, much like Shepard Fairey’s sophomoric cover art, is that it’s all very monochromatic, and what you take out of your first impression is just about as deep as you can dig. Corgan’s guitar never strays very far from serrated Guitar Center tones, and his lyrical fixations may best be summed up by the unfortunately named “7 Shades of Black.”

The result is a startlingly aggressive album that still manages to sound boring, mostly because Corgan is just treading water in full on navel-gaze mode. There are, of course, a few minor and obligatory updates to try and justify this project—namely Zeitgeist’s limp facade as a political statement.

On that front, we have Corgan repeatedly yelling “revolution!” in the ten-minute centerpiece “United States,” and the ironic war anthem “God and Country.” We’re meant to believe that this is Corgan’s commentary on a world that’s changed so much in past years, a sort of thematic unity that ties the package together, but the vague allusions to impending doom are superficial, never going beyond an armchair commentary. Zeitgeist really comes across as Corgan having a chip on his shoulder after his antics broke up yet another band, and he sounds desperate to prove that he doesn’t need them, or anyone else for that matter.

What perfect timing to announce a band reunion.

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