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Review: Smashing Pumpkins’ Satisfyingly Unambitious ‘Monuments to an Elegy’

6
SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: December 9, 2014
Label: Martha's Music/BMG

The ninth Smashing Pumpkins album, the bloatedly titled Monuments to an Elegy, is intended as the second-to-last installment in the band’s half-decade-spanning song cycle, Teargarden By Kaleidyscope. The eventual 44-song set, based on the theme of the “Fool’s Journey” from the tarot, encompasses two EPs, several non-album singles, 2012’s Oceania (an “album-within-an-album”), and will presumably end with next year’s Day for Night full-length. This is all really only worth mentioning to be followed with the unlikely statement that Monuments is not just Smashing Pumpkins’ least conceptual LP to date, it’s also their most accessible and immediate since… well, since whenever the Pumpkins last cared enough to make accessibility and immediacy a top priority.

Perhaps more importantly, this record also by far their shortest: You might accidentally play the nine tracks and 32 minutes of this album two or three times on repeat out of habit before you even think to check to see what’s going on. Monuments is almost Billy Corgan’s version of a shaggy-dog joke, keeping you waiting a half-hour for a portentous, prog-rock twist that never comes. The punch line, then, is that Smashing Pumpkins have actually released an album of compact, straightforward pop-rock songs.

The sound of Monuments is indeed a throwback to the ’90s, but not the Pumpkins’ ’90s — despite Corgan’s Siamese Dream-y promises of “guitars, guitars, guitars, and more guitars” for this album, only second single (and album highlight) “One of All” is really striking in its crunching guitar attack. The rest of the nine tracks are fare more notable for their preponderance of synths, from the Rentals-esque sway of opener “Tiberius” to the Erasure-head pulse of “Run2Me.” Even “Anaise” and “Drum + Fife,” two of the LP’s less keys-drenched cuts, are more notable for their blustering “We Care a Lot” drum stomp (courtesy of unlikely collaborator Tommy Lee) and gently lilting string section, respectively, than for anything six-string.

Mostly, Monuments is ’90s-indebted for its surprisingly humble notion that a collection of new wave-influenced, relatively unambitious alt-rock songs can be a commercially viable thing for a name-brand rock group — albeit one that now features just one founding member — to release in 2014. The album’s songs are punchy, catchy, and generally crowd-pleasing in their blithe romanticism (“Love you, Anaise,” “Yes I loved you, as a matter of fact,” “Run to me, my special one”), with easy-to-understand themes and structures. It’s an LP that makes virtually no sense in the Pumpkins’ chronology, but is a satisfying enough half-hour of Alternative Nation-era would-be-smashes — if it’s divorced entirely from present-day context. One winces to think how drowned in pretense follow-up Day for Night — supposedly the more “experimental” of the two — will have to be to make up for it.