Smashing Pumpkins Learn Some New Tricks on Shiny and Oh So Bright
When the Smashing Pumpkins followed up 1995’s 10 million-selling opus Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness with Adore—one of those shoegaze-y electro-rock albums that cropped up from every crack in the pavement in the late ‘90s—the band may as well have committed commercial suicide. That’s not to disparage that album or its direction, but instead to put in perspective just how durable the Smashing Pumpkins brand has been ever since. Somehow, bandleader Billy Corgan has never driven the group into irrelevance in spite of an almost perverse insistence on deviating from the unique blend of chunky alterna-rock guitar riffs, melody, and grandiosity that made him famous.
All signs pointed to Shiny and Oh So Bright (full title: Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun.) as an authoritative step back on track. In February, after two years spent hinting at a reunion, Corgan announced that he was again working with original drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and guitarist James Iha. “Solara,” their first offering before the re-tooled group went out on tour, delivered a dose of signature Pumpkins magic with a creeping riff that builds to a sublime eruption of guitar distortion and soaring vocals even before the song reaches the one-minute mark. And with a refrain of “I’m not everyone,” Corgan once again showed that he can channel what would otherwise come across as insufferable self-pity into anthemic rock power. “Solara” also announced the return of Chamberlin, back for his fourth tour of duty with the Pumpkins, whose mix of technical power and balletic finesse is as vital to the band’s sound as Corgan’s voice and composition style.
In truth, however, only two new songs—“Solara” and “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)”—overtly reference the band’s commercial peak, with conscious nods to the tone, cadence, and feel of 1993’s Siamese Dream deep cut “Geek USA” and the Mellon Collie smash single “1979,” respectively. For the rest of the album, Corgan and company sound out of step not with just their own past but with current trends as well, even when they attempt to hone in on the latter. Opening track “Knights of Malta,” for example, sees Corgan pursuing the path of chin-scratching, over-intellectualized funk that bands like Arcade Fire and Tame Impala have tread since he, Chamberlin, and Iha last played on an album together. The vintage bass tone, string section, and female backup singers convey a sense of contemporaneity only because those same building blocks have become commonplace. Is the band desperately trying to catch up with trends several years too late? Not at all. Corgan is surprisingly fluent with the current alternative/indie lexicon, inserting his own melodramatic touches (strings, a tempo suited for leisurely navel-gazing, and his unmistakable voice) that make “Knights of Malta” fit as comfortably as an old jean jacket.
Other Shiny and Oh So Bright moments elicit a reflex response of “Where are they going with this… wait, they went there??” Not one but two songs, “Travels” and the aforementioned “Silvery Sometimes,” with their polished, utterly unobtrusive jangle, could have appeared on any mainstream-leaning Tragically Hip record since the year 2000, and had the Hip had recorded these tunes themselves, you would totally believe they wrote them. “Travels” even bears traces of fluffed-up ’80s production reminiscent of any band from R.E.M. to post-makeup KISS. And the galloping “Marchin’ On” could soundtrack the opening sequence of the animated classic Heavy Metal, which depicts a space traveler dropping to earth in a hot rod convertible.
Strangely, it’s these questionable decisions that give Shiny and Oh So Bright much of its charm. These days, Corgan is proving himself far too clever and adept to degrade the sound he created with his old partners, much as he might flirt with danger. “Marchin’ On,” for example, lands closer to the legendary Chicago art-rock trio Trans Am’s penchant for making fun of rockist archetypes—except that Corgan isn’t being ironic in the slightest. He has always believed in himself and the preeminence of his feelings too much to be anything other than one-hundred percent earnest.
In truth, Shiny and Oh So Bright isn’t the classic-era reunion it’s billed as—more like a new-animal hybrid of the original and later-period incarnations of this band, a fusion of the Chamberlin-Iha lineup with Jeff Schroeder, Corgan’s go-to second guitarist since 2007. At eight tracks and a half-hour runtime, it’s a remarkably compact effort from an act whose albums typically swell past an hour, to say nothing of the mountains of material most previous recording sessions have yielded on the side. Yet Corgan hasn’t succumbed to the Kanye West disease of releasing half-baked EPs labeled as full-lengths. (Vol. 2 is presumably forthcoming.) Though it would take at least one or two more songs to decisively close Shiny and Oh So Bright, the Pumpkins have landed on a surprisingly cohesive amalgamation of influences. It seems unlikely they’ll ever have another smash hit, but if this new material is any indication, the freedom to roam has opened new space for a band that once risked getting bogged down by its own pretenses. We should know by now not to count Corgan out, even when he appears inches from losing the plot.