|No, I had nothing to do with this album.|
I must admit that I ate my fair share of crow with this one.
It wasn't that I was necessarily expecting it to be a bad album, it's just that I'd gotten a bit skeptical (and somewhat cynical) about where this 44-song Teargarden by Kaleidyscope project was heading. The first two EPs, Songs for a Sailor and The Solstice Bare, met with lukewarm, if not hostile, response from fans. I found them good but nothing to really get excited about. And some of Corgan's promising endeavors, such as the Glass and the Machines of God animated series and Zwan, were never completed or, sadly, derailed before reaching their full potential. Also, it didn't help that I'd become disenchanted with Billy's antics over the past few years - the embarrassing, abusive stage "banter" during the 20th Anniversary Tour, the digs at previous band members and just the seemingly all around mean-spiritedness coming across in interviews. So, basically I stopped listening to anything he had to say when not singing. And yet, I was even growing tired of the Pumpkins' back catalog as well.
Because I was initially intrigued with the newer material they performed, I had decided to give them the benefit of the doubt with this release. I suppose, deep down, I didn't really want to let go of my 16 years of Pumpkin love. So, I tried not to expect too much with Oceania, especially when music you first hear live may not translate as well into a studio version. Oceania could be surprisingly good, although, I already resigned myself to the fact that it could be a disappointment.
Turns out it's not good - it's GREAT!
Many critics and fans have remarked that Oceania hearkens back to Siamese Dream, and while I agree to a point (a little more like Zeitgeist to me), I think it needs to be said that it isn't a ploy for nostalgia but the band once again finding its musical heart. They've managed to distill that identifiably Pumpkins sound down to its essence and infused it throughout the new material. The compositions are tight, straightforward and yet still allow the imagination to wander and the spirit to drift. While I don't think Zeitgeist was a terrible album (really good but not great per se) the song writing on Oceania feels more mature, more refined. This is Smashing Pumpkins taking things more seriously, really proving their artistry and technical skill.
I'd even venture to say that it's a more "adult" album. That isn't to say it's like contemporary adult rock or something, just that it's not brimming with a forced angst or teenage cynicism. As a now thirty-year-old man I'm long past the whiny teenage stuff and I'm grateful to see the Pumpkins have matured, too.
Additionally, I'm reluctant to say that certain songs sound like they would fit on previous albums. I think it would be a disservice to try and pigeonhole them in that respect. The past has certainly informed the future, but I wouldn't call it a throwback - it's an evolution. One can hear the hints of previous eras throughout but in Oceania they've come together in a beautiful sonic alchemy that comfortably fits within the larger Teargarden opus. Though the album can certainly stand on it's own.
Quasar opens the album with a heavy, almost old school, Pumpkins rocker. Mike brings it on the drums while Billy and Jeff give us the guitar driven energy that makes this song quintessentially Smashing Pumpkins. This is followed by Panopticon, another heavy yet melodic track.
The Celestials features one of my favorite bass lines from Ms. Fiorentino. Building from a softer acoustic beginning, the song ends with electric guitars and pounding drums.
The fourth track, Violet Rays is an electric ballad and, I think, features some of Billy's most poetic lyrics. It's an emotional song that reminds us how raw and sensitive an artist he is. I would say the same about the next track, My Love Is Winter. While, I don't know that I'd call it a ballad, it's a great composition layered with evocative lyrics. It almost reminds me of Stand Inside Your Love with it's swelling, grandiose guitars and, perhaps idealistic longing for a beloved.
One Diamond, One Heart is another great love song, a bit more gentle than the last. The synth elements compliment the guitar and give the tune a nice pop quality.
Next, Pinwheels is my favorite song on the album! I think it has one the best openings in a Pumpkins song. The song features folksy, acoustic verses and Nicole provides absolutely perfect backing vocals! It's a dreamy, relaxing track.
Oceania, the title track, is a 9-minute song in three parts. Brooding drums and guitars give way to an acoustic middle, ending once again with a classic Pumpkins guitar solo. This is another song in which I find Mike's drumming really impressive.
The haunting Pale Horse gives way to a Zwan-like song, The Chimera, which creates a nice juxtaposition between the classically bittersweet introspection Corgan excels at and the more optimistic, life-affirming current that seems to polarize fans. I find Pale Horse has a Pink Floyd quality to the chorus which only makes the track feel even more ethereal.
Glissandra reminds me of Machina and the romantically groovy Inkless has one of my favorite guitar solos on the album. I have to say Inkless does have a very early Pumpkins feel to it and I find myself tapping my foot along to it...while gazing at my shoes.
Finally, Wildflower, I admit, is my least favorite song on the album. It's sad, though in a beautiful way. However, it just doesn't satisfy me as an ending to an otherwise fantastic record.
|photo from TravisFaulk.com|
Mike Byrne more than makes up for the absence of Chamberlain. Yes, Jimmy was pivotal in establishing the band's sound. His jazz background gave him an unusual approach to rock drumming. But Mike, who joined the band as a teen and counts Chamberlain as one of his influences, isn't trying to be Jimmy and provides his own tight, skilful rhythm. Billy saw potential in Byrne and it's paying off.
Furthermore, Nicole's voice harmonizes much better with Corgan's than D'arcy's ever did, as evident in Pinwheels. And now that Billy wasn't laying down the bass in studio as he's done on several past albums, Fiorentino's talent is all too obvious. And I recall her sounding even better live in NYC!
And Jeff...I mean...what can you really say about Jeff's talent other than he's fucking amazing? I'm glad he stuck with the band since Zeitgeist!
In conclusion, I give Oceania ★★★★½ out of 5. Why? Because of Wildflowers. But that's my only complaint about this album. Otherwise, Oceania has rekindled my affection for the band and it truly seems that Smashing Pumpkins has begun a new, promising chapter. I can't wait to see them perform again!