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Smashing Pumpkins - 'Oceania' Review

Billy Corgan Produces Smashing Pumpkins' Best Album in Years

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smashing pumpkins oceania review

Smashing Pumpkins - 'Oceania'

Photo courtesy Total Assault.
After years of creative stumbles, Billy Corgan rights the ship with the first proper Smashing Pumpkins album in five years, Oceania. Though no longer associated with the band members that made the Pumpkins one of the most popular alt-rock acts of the 1990s, Corgan has managed to craft a record that captures what used to define the group at their best: immaculate melodies, engaging tunes, dynamic drama and a willingness to embrace rock’s more grandiose ambitions. Clocking in at just over an hour, Oceania is a fully immersive experience that stands as the group’s most accomplished effort in at least 14 years.

A New and Different Smashing Pumpkins

After 2000’s poorly received Machina/The Machines of God, Corgan disbanded Smashing Pumpkins, focusing on a solo career and a side band, Zwan, neither of which caught fire with the public. In 2007, he released Zeitgeist under the Pumpkins moniker, but in recent years, he’s worked with musicians who weren’t part of the group’s heyday: guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Nicole Fiorentino and drummer Mike Byrne. It’s hard not to be cynical and accuse Corgan’s new bandmates of being nothing more than hired hands, but on the evidence of Oceania, this is a tight quartet who give Corgan’s tunes the space to explore vast terrain. But at the same time, the 21st century Pumpkins aren’t trying to remake Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness: New Wave-ish keyboards have been added to the mix, while the petulant rage of yesteryear is in short supply. As always, Smashing Pumpkins remains Corgan’s baby, but Oceania reveals a focus that had seemed to be long gone.

Some Mighty Fine Cherry-Picking

When we last heard from Corgan, he was working on his ridiculously epic Teargarden by Kaleidyscope project, which would consist of 44 songs released one at a time. That project is still going on, and Corgan has said that Oceania is an album within that album. If that’s the case, it seems that the 45-year-old frontman has cherry-picked the best material for Oceania. Indeed, this 13-track collection contains all the elements that have marked Corgan’s musical career: psychedelia (“Pinwheels”), guitar workouts (“Quasar”), overreaching extra-long tracks (the nine-minute “Oceania”), and aching melancholy (“Pale Horses”). Impressively, though, Oceania feels less like a nostalgia trip than a wholly satisfying new chapter from this band. Corgan tends to overstuff his records, but whereas the double-disc Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness could simply feel unwieldy, this new effort represents a more streamlined approach at musical overkill, a seeming contradiction that proves incredibly rewarding.

Direct and Honest

Another element of Oceania’s success, surprisingly, is Corgan’s ability to curb his monster ego. In interviews, he comes across as a massively pompous artist, and that self-importance started to infect his recordings, both in their stylistic bombastic and their lyrical pronouncements. No question Oceania is a bold record, but on songs like “Violet Rays” and “My Love Is Winter” there’s a directness and purity to the romantic despair that resonates in a deeper, more urgent way. Throughout Oceania, all the way to the album-closing “Wildflower,” Corgan seems to be stumbling through his uncertainty, looking for a second chance. “I’m wasted along the way to reach you,” he sings, and it’s tempting to wonder if the “you” in question is his audience, which has shrunk over time. For all its elegant musical complexity, Oceania is emotionally stripped-down, the sonic dexterity amplifying the candor of the lyrics.

He Told Us All Along

It can be dangerous to listen to what a songwriter says his album is about before you get to hear it for yourself -- there’s a tendency toward hyperbolic rhetoric in order to get the fan base excited -- but with Oceania it turns out that Corgan was pretty accurate in his assessment. As he’s mentioned, Oceania very much seems to reflect a sense of isolation, but what’s most welcome is that this isolation hasn’t left Corgan bitter or resentful. (After all, that isolation could either be personal or reflect Smashing Pumpkins’ decreased popularity in the last decade.) Instead, this feeling has provoked a more introspective Corgan, which has produced his most glorious music in many a moon. The beautiful guitar lines of “Pale Horse” and the suite-like procession of “Oceania” tickle the ear, only eventually revealing their despondent messages of people and things that have been lost. Additionally, Corgan has claimed that friends who had heard Oceania had claimed it was his best since Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Time will tell, but for now it’s clear that Oceania is the first Smashing Pumpkins record since then to fully stimulate the senses and stir the heart.

'Oceania' - Best Tracks:

“Pale Horse” (Purchase/Download)
“The Chimera” (Purchase/Download)
“The Celestials” (Purchase/Download)
“Violet Rays” (Purchase/Download)
“My Love Is Winter” (Purchase/Download)

Release date – June 19, 2012
Martha’s Music

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