Album review: Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania (EMI)

For years, Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan—long an avowed fan of professional wrestling—has reveled in playing the heel.

Over the last decade, the singer has feuded with former bandmates (most notably, former Pumpkins guitarist James Iha), musical collaborators (his Twitter spats with Courtney Love are borderline epic), and, during a particularly confrontational 2008 tour, his own fans.

In a phone interview last fall, the vocalist copped to harboring a massive chip on his shoulder, saying, “When I was young I wanted people to say, ‘Hey, you’re somebody.’”

This incessant need to prove himself to doubters has no doubt fueled much of Corgan’s musical exploration over the last ten-plus years, including a short-lived stint with the better-than-its-fate Zwan, a here-and-gone solo album, and even a Weekend at Bernie’s-like attempt at resurrecting the Pumpkins with drummer Jimmy Chamberlin for the 2007 snoozer Zeitgeist. With that in mind, it’s somewhat comforting that Corgan, 45, appears to have finally found a measure of peace on Oceania. “I’ll kiss anyone tonight,” he sings on “Violet Rays,” like a giddy teen tripping on ecstasy.

Throughout Oceania, the frontman, in the midst of penning a 900-page-plus “spiritual memoir,” sounds like he’s on some sort of religious quest. Songs touch on deities (“God right on! Krishna right on!” he cheerleads on “Quasar”), self-enlightenment (“The Chimera”), and the redemptive power of faith (“Inkless”). At times, Corgan comes across a bit too much like a new-age shaman. “Your stars align, and you let me and your heart win,” he proclaims on one tune. But more often than not, he sounds like a man still struggling to find answers of his own.

Corgan is joined on his search by a new band of travelers, including guitarist Jeff Schroeder, drummer Mike Byrne, and bassist Nicole Florentino, who chips in with spectral vocal harmonies on a handful of tunes. Though the frontman has long been labeled a control freak, Oceania truly comes across like the product of a full-on band rather than the work of one man with an iron fist and limitless studio access. “Quasar” sets the tone, piling on thundering drums, Corgan’s nasal sneer, and agitated guitars that churn and swirl like stormy ocean waters. “The Chimera” sounds even more like vintage Pumpkins, opening with a churlish guitar riff that calls to mind Siamese Dream’s “Rocket.”

Elsewhere, Corgan and Co. pull back for the dreamy “Pale Horse,” toy with disco-pop on the proggy, pulsating “One Diamond One Heart,” and ease into stately rockers like “Pinwheels”—a tune that takes flight on airy strings, Florentino’s gorgeous backing vocals, and a guitar solo that drifts, circles, and swoops hawk-like above the fray. Still, it’s an earlier moment that resonates most strongly on the long-overdue comeback effort.

“It takes some life to find the light within,” sings a chastened Corgan on “The Chimera.” Consider Oceania the sound of a creative spark reignited. —Andy Downing


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