I got into a discussion recently with a co-worker who loves The Smashing Pumpkins.
He remembered seeing Billy Corgan on stage at The Ritz in Ybor City several years ago. He described his emotional connection to Gish and Siamese Dream.
So I recommended he check out the Pumpkins’ newest disc, Oceania. I told him it reminded me of the band pre-Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, back when it seemed like Corgan was speaking directly to me, whispering confessionals in my ear, through songs like “Today” and “Disarm.”
(Quick confession of my own: My all-time favorite Pumpkins track is actually “Drown” off the Singles soundtrack.)
So my colleague went out and bought Oceania, and absolutely hated it. Passionately, vocally hated it.
And yet, here I am, recommending to you, the masses, that you give this album a chance. Here’s why: This is the best lineup that Corgan has assembled since the heyday of James Iha, D’arcy Wretzky and Jimmy Chamberlin. And it’s the best that Billy has sounded in years. He actually, honestly, sounds loose, free and poetic once again.
Oceania kicks off with a double-slice of classic Pumpkins guitar rock before settling in. Corgan has always been a master of maneuvering through blasts of distortion to mine canyons of quiet before erupting with scathing vitriol or unexpected melody.
And to be honest, Oceania is at its best in the quieter moments. Songs like “The Celestials,” “Pinwheels” and “The Chimera” remind you of the beauty that Corgan used to capture effortlessly without forsaking his love of full-throated rock. “The Chimera” is the standout, worthy of mainstream radio appreciation.
The wild card here is the divisive, near-10 minute title track.
It’s over-ambitious, full of rock star excess and prone to unnecessary, selfish flourishes – all hallmark criticism of Corgan when the Pumpkins decline officially kicked in post-1995, but the words still manage to claw out from the rubble to offer a plaintive, very personal admission:
No one can love you
‘Cause no one can free you
Lovers can’t touch you
‘Cause lovers might reach you, yeah
I’m so alone, so alone
But better than a wretched world
Better than a broken pearl
I’m so alone, so alone
But better than I ever was
It’s unclear if Oceania marks the next phase of Corgan and the Pumpkins’ career, or a proper coda after 2007’s wretched Zeitgeist, a bloated mess of an album.
If it is indeed the first step in the next direction, it’s a good one. Oceania isn’t a perfect album, and Corgan may be too far removed from the days when he could easily tap into our collective conscience and deliver a blistering sermon, but there are moments that remind you what it was like to have Billy in the pulpit, the place we needed him then and still want him to be.