(RELEASE DATE: DECEMBER 9th, 2014.)
Even though Billy Corgan himself might deny it, with yet another change of cast on the stage that is Smashing Pumpkins, it’s hard to deny the fact that Billy Corgan is to Smashing Pumpkins what Trent Reznor is to Nine Inch Nails. Monuments to an Elegy proves this, as Corgan unleashes a great Smashing Pumpkins album with little contribution from his most recent cast of Pumpkins (some of which are no longer with the band with the exception of Jeff Schroeder). Monuments to an Elegy is that rare album that comes along only once in a while in a great musician’s (or band’s) career. An album that is easily discernable as one particular artist’s work, yet pushes the boundaries of their sound into new areas is often the privileged work of the greatest of bands. Smashing Pumpkins is one of those “greatest of bands,” even if “they” only consist of Corgan as the only permanent member now, and this is his new career defining work.
The album opens with “Tiberius,” a song that embodies pretty much everything that was great about Smashing Pumpkins circa 1993-4. Thick “grunge in furs” guitars, the classic grunge “wall of guitars” noise, and some great use of the soft/loud dichotomy that defined much of the early grunge-as well as the early Smashing Pumpkins- sound. Do we even hear a bit of that Siamese Dream overdubbed guitar harmony here? Why yes, yes we do. “Tiberius” is a consummate Smashing Pumpkins track through and through. “Being Beige,’ the album’s second track, is pure Smashing Pumpkins as well. The tiny piano which plays over a drum machine beat which supernovas into a soaring electric guitar riff supported by some good ole’ Gen X fuzzy grunge guitar sounds is a Godsend to thousands of Gen X’ers who’ve been wondering what ever happened to Old Man Corgan.
“One and All,” the track on which many feared Corgan was going to go all hair-metal on us since Tommy Lee (yes, that Tommy Lee) plays drums on it, ends up being one of the hardest, and most characteristically reminiscent of early Pumpkins, songs Corgan has written in a while. While there was plenty that rocked on Oceania, there was nothing that was particularly heavy. “One and All” is that heavy, dense, thick and chunky song that Pumpkin fans knew that Corgan still had in him. “One and All” makes a strong case for being the best song on the album, but another rocker (more of a moderate rocker to be exact), “Drum+Fife” makes an even stronger case with its haunting opening consisting of a solitary fife played in the background, which is soon threaded by Corgan’s cleanly plucked electric guitar which, in turn, swiftly moves into an expansive, soaring main riff. Corgan repeats “I will bang this drum to my dying day,” but one can only hope that his generation’s most prolific songwriter can continue to come up with songs as good as “Drum+Fife” after writing seemingly hundreds of others just as good. Corgan’s songwriting ability really is something special. The sheer amount of great songs he has written is is astounding, letting alone the now omnipresent ones that will forever define not only 90s alt-rock, but great rock that transcends all genres.
“Anaise!” (a Hebraic and Persian name for a girl meaning gracious or merciful) begins to hint at what Billy Corgan has in store for his listeners a bit later on in the album. Guitars still reign gloriously supreme here in the best Pumpkin tradition, but strangely psychedelic electronica begins to creep into the background. Later on in “Run2me” the psychedelic electronica will begin to take over. “Run2me” would have been at home on Adore or the B-SIde of Machina. It’s the album’s weakest track, but it still showcases more guitar than just about any song on the aforementioned Adore. “Monuments” is a suitably crunchy guitar song, although the background spangly synth riff, that endlessly repeats throughout the song, detracts from what could have been one of the album’s strongest tracks. It does though, much like “Tiberius” does, make some great use of the soft/loud grunge dichotomy.
“Dorian” is pure synth pop with guitar added in for flavor. It’s perhaps the closest that Corgan has come to writing a straight up New Wave song as leader of the Smashing Pumpkins. He dabbled in this type of sound extensively on his one and only solo release The Future Embrace, and this track should have been left on the dungheap of that album (unless you’re a fan of that album, then this just might be your favorite track on this album). “Anti-Hero” the very next (and final) song on the album is the exact opposite of “Dorian.” A straight up, and straight ahead, rocker with the most basic (but very loudest) of rock riffs carries a song full of lyrics about “a girl like you,” and “love me baby can’t ya please?” It might be one of the most hard rocking throwaway songs that Corgan has ever written. It is a bit of a break from all the esoteric (and sometimes indecipherable) musings that cloud the album. Corgan demonstrates here that while he appears to be a bit supernaturally adept at pondering the significance of everything from Rosicrucianism to the Illuminati (see the album art from everything from Monuments to an Elegy to Gish), he still is just another dude who every once in a while likes to write and sing songs about many adolescent rock ‘n rollers’ dream: pretty girls. Sometimes it’s a good thing to let the simpler (and younger) elements of our psyches to bubble to the surface now and again.
Monuments to an Elegy might not be the best Smashing Pumpkins album ever recorded, that remains a toss up between Mellon Collie and Siamese Dream, but Monuments is one of those Smashing Pumpkins albums that should reinforce their standing with old fans, and just might garner them some new ones with its ability to capture new ears with its solid sound. Corgan might never be cool again (“hip” I guess I should say), but he can still rock, and no amount of years or changes to the alt-rock sound will take that away from him.