“The world is not designed for artistic people. The world is designed for people who make money. And so, you have to ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this? What am I trying to get at? What am I trying to express?’” – Billy Corgan 1993
On ‘Knights of Malta’ Billy Corgan sings about riding a rainbow and flying forever. This makes about as much sense as a bad Oasis lyric. What is this? How did we get here? Why is Billy doing this? What’s he trying to get at? What is he trying to express?
But already Shiny and Oh So Bright Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun can be awarded its first distinction. It defies expectation. It doesn’t even sound like the last six Smashing Pumpkins records that defied expectation.
‘Silvery Sometimes (Ghost)’ and ‘Travels’ sit closer to the group’s classic sound. It’s the type of song fans have been fantasising about for years. Listen to those sullen lyrics, not to mention the hard thrashin’ guitar lines! A return to metalprogrockgrungepop, plain ‘n’ simple!
And it’s the classic lineup too! Well, as close you could have it without flaxen bassist D’Arcy Wretzky, who’s declined to return. She was such a big part of the group’s image — but don’t let that detract from the fact James Iha, Jimmy Chamberlin and Jeff Schroeder are all here, back and firing at full force.
The classic band doing the classic sound! (With Rick Rubin producing!) Fans have demanded and finally the universe has provided. Meet the new Billy Corgan, he’s flinging us a bone — but does any of this live up to the fantasy? Has anything ever? To steal from the words of Truman Capote, more tears have been shed over the prayers that have been answered than those that haven’t.
That said, ‘Travels’ is so sensibly sturdy there’s at least a case that SAOSBV1L:NP.NF.NS – no that doesn’t work at all let’s just call it Shiny – is a solid record. But when has this been a band in the business of making solid records?
If ‘Travels’ evokes Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, ‘Solara’ is Siamese Dream. Billy hits that note-perfect angst. Yet is all this grunge evocation a little hollow in the middle? It’s all in there but is he feeling it?
Even in giving the listener everything they’ve wanted, Corgan still finds a way to make it difficult. No more so than with ‘Alienation’. And what — just what — is ‘With Sympathy’ anyway? A big marching ballad? It’s no ‘Power to the People’, but maybe it could work on a U2 record? Does it sound better in the stadium Billy? What’s the jig?
Granted, there hasn’t been a Smashing Pumpkins record for a good while, has the band undergone some sort of pop-facing evolution we’re missing? If ‘With Sympathy’ is trying to modernise, it’s sounding cornball. Then again, when it comes to stretching out his creative wings, Billy is a kid more comfortable with the fear of failure than most.
‘Marchin’ On’ sees the group again inhabiting Mellon Collie. Grandiose progressions and symphonic touches tell us that all the fuel is there. But where’s the fire? Corgan is struggling to find the match.
This is a challenging record. Tracks two, three and eight have the makings of a great call-back album.
Closer, ‘Seek And You Shall Destroy’ also finds a nice balance between old and new. But the more middle of the road material cuts across as a little confusing. Band behind him, Corgan is throwing himself all in, but as a listener, it’s difficult to follow.
Future generations may come to cherish this record. In fact, everything from Adore onward is actually startin’ to sound pretty good. Pisces Iscariot is still serviceable, and Gish is brilliant, though it was always a little brilliant so that’s a little beside the point. We’re getting lost in thought though because, reader, we’re talking about Shiny.
The vocal delivery stands up and guitar lines are great. Though, if the comparison had to be begged, it ain’t no Mellon Collie and nor is it Siamese. What is?
But what the fans think is beside the point, because Corgan doesn’t go anywhere by request. A Smashing Pumpkins record is never going to be exactly what you want it to be. But to reiterate, what is?
While Shiny might leave listeners wanting as a statement, it at least furnishes a few serviceable songs. There’s material here that’s not going go down acceptably live, something to keep the crowd occupied between hits.
Too mean? Well okay, maybe he’s like Bob Dylan. Dylan wrote a run of iconic albums, then some okay ones. Now, he does Christmas records and covers songs from childhood idols.
When proffered why old Bob will probably throw out some combination of explanations ranging from the fact he’s exhausted with the idea that music can make a difference, dislikes the recording process, jaded with The Business and believes that too many songs have already been written. But he’ll emphasise that he still loves playing live and will probably be touring a couple of hundred days a year until he drops.
Has Billy arrived here too? Don’t forget he’s been in the Pumpkins’ game since 1985. Maybe he’s just not in love with music the same way he was when he set the world on fire. But all the same, he’s happy to play live. That, or he knows something we don’t.
Shiny generates questions like these because the idea that it’s in any way a cultural or career landmark is flimsy to non-existent. Even the proposition that it’s good is debatable. The notion that it’s this band’s worst can, however, be rejected. Shiny is, actually, okay. And that’s no small feat considering this evaluation has to be made with comparison to the two or so Smashing Pumpkins records that changed your life.
Corgan has mused before about ‘finding his way back to the centre.’ And he has. But it isn’t through his muse or high-minded art as much as his band’s legacy, its massive audience and an enduring presence.
When the band comes to town on tour, those tickets will be singing out to be purchased. You’ll go and during the set there’ll be moments where, along with the other ten thousand people there, you’ll feel alive.
Then you might look up on stage. What you’ll see is a man who, when he was 28, expressed that the world was a vampire sent to drain him. A person who felt empty and jaded and apathetic. One who stood on stages and sang to thousands of other disaffected members of Generation X, telling them what was on his mind and all of a sudden, they didn’t feel so alone.
Maybe it’s different now. Maybe the world has drained him to the point that there’s little joy in it.
To circle back to where this began: “The world is not designed for artistic people.”
If Billy Corgan has one problem, it’s that he’s right.
The Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Shiny And Oh So Bright Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun’ is out now.