That Billy Corgan has a big mouth is something even the 53-year-old frontman of the storied band, The Smashing Pumpkins, acknowledges, probably with a sense of pride. A couple of months ago, in an interview with The New York Times, Corgan said, “If I kept my mouth shut, and if I kept my band together, we’d be playing bigger venues and we would be a lot more successful.” Corgan has been described as an egoist, a sociopath and a narcissist. In its heydays, however, the band he formed in 1988 attained a level of success remarkable for that era. In the 1990s, Smashing Pumpkins released four successive albums, each one of which sold a million copies or more (“platinum”, in music industry terminology).
What was particularly interesting about those albums was their genre. The Pumpkins’ debut, Gish (1991), and the three albums that followed—Siamese Dream (1993), Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness (1995) and Adore (1998)—eschewed the then prevailing underground-influenced trend of grunge, epitomised by bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam, both contemporaries of the Pumpkins but ones whose brand of music couldn’t have been more different from theirs. Instead of the rebellious sound of their peers, the Chicago-based Pumpkins, led by Corgan, made music that was a combination of progressive rock, symphonic arrangements, psychedelia, heavy metal, goth rock and prominent guitar riffs. Their multilayered sound, and Corgan’s distinctive lyrics, delivered with angst, made them stand out in the era of grunge.
Then began the Pumpkins’ slide. Intra-band friction, often caused by drug use or ego-fuelled bickering, led to members leaving or being sacked. In the second phase of their career, the Pumpkins never attained the heights they had in their salad days, though Corgan kept the band name alive, recording or playing with a series of other musicians that he enlisted. Although die-hard Pumpkins fans or Corgan loyalists continued to welcome their later releases, those albums (there are at least half a dozen of them) are not nearly as memorable as the quartet they released in the 1990s. Some of them have the occasional brilliance or sparkling moments but none has the magic of the band’s peak-era recordings.
Around 2016, most of the original members of the band reunited with Corgan. Drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, who had left in the late 1990s owing to drug use, and guitarist James Iha returned to the band (the original bassist D’arcy Wretzky didn’t). They have performed a few gigs since. Late this November, the Pumpkins released their newest album, Cyr. Considerable media fanfare preceded it, not surprising given Corgan’s penchant for hyperbole and self-promotion. Yet Cyr too fell short of expectations. But more on that in a moment.
Every Pumpkins fan has her or his favourite album. Mine is the epic Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. The original had 28 songs that ran for over two hours. In 2012, it was remastered as a deluxe version, with 92 tracks on five CDs that run for an eye-popping five hours and 52 seconds. It was a collector’s item that included tons of unreleased versions, demos and impromptu jams. The original 28 tracks were also remastered and polished by Corgan himself. The result was a magnificent album that anyone who is even mildly influenced by the Pumpkins’ glorious 1990s era must have in their record collection.
Mellon Collie demonstrates the true talent of Corgan and the Pumpkins more than any other album. It is sometimes referred to as a concept album, interpreted by some critics as being in two parts—the first half, “day”, and the second, “night”—but Corgan has always rejected that notion.
Whatever it may be, the album, quite easily their most ambitious, amalgamates genres that the Pumpkins easily and seamlessly segue into—rock, pop, and classical—and is, incredibly, at times minimalistic as well as grandiosely opulent in terms of its sound.
To fast-forward from there to Cyr can be a disappointing journey. Cyr isn’t a short album. Its 20 songs run for 72 minutes but those minutes aren’t all memorable. Some songs are good but many drudge on boringly. On Cyr, the Pumpkins seem to be trying hard—not to recapture the magic of the best days of their roller-coaster career but to get a wider audience. As part of that effort, it appears, sadly, that they have tried to make a pop-friendly album.
Of all the Cyr songs, the one that is faintly nostalgic of their past glory is the one titled Wyttch. Dark and heavy, it is the only track on an otherwise “meh” release that reveals the Pumpkins’ old, innate characteristic of being innovative, not really caring much for what everybody else thinks. If the rest of Cyr was like that, I may have added it to my Spotify library instead of reaching for my box set of Mellon Collie.
We are fortunate that the Pumpkins’ 1990s-era discography exists.
THE LOUNGE LIST
Five tracks by The Smashing Pumpkins to bookend your week
1. ‘Wyttch’ from ‘Cyr’
2. ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’ from ‘Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness’
3. ‘Tonight, Tonight’ from ‘Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness’
4. ‘Today’ from ‘Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness’
5. ‘Rhinoceros’ from ‘Gish’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.