2007 in Music – Part 1: Zeitgeist
It is now 2008 and so it seems like this is a good opportunity to talk about a couple of the important (to me, at least) albums from 2007 over the course of a couple posts. I was by no means optimistic about The Smashing Pumpkins return album, Zeitgeist, released in July of 2007. I figured it would be in a similar vein as the Machina II and Billy Corgan’s TheFutureEmbrace. I feel that my assumptions were pretty much correct and I’m still not entirely sure if I’m disappointed by that. On first listen, I was disappointed by the relative uniformity among the songs’ textures. There were some catchy guitar riffs such as those found in “Tarantula” and “Doomsday Clock”, but I found myself skipping a couple tracks (including “That’s the Way (My Love Is)”, which is still skipped in my random-play list). After getting accustomed to the album a bit, it became more enjoyable. However, the giant walls of guitar are still impersonal and a bit intimidating. The large, pumped up chords are tiresome by the time we get to “Neverlost”, which has some enjoyably mellow faux-xylophone. One ingredient missing from Zeitgeist is the epic Pumpkins track. While “United States” clocks in at almost 10 minutes, the same riff permeates throughout, losing the multi-partedness of a song like “Starla”, “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans”, or even “Glass and the Ghost Children”. Of course it is possible to write a complexly structured track based around a single melodic theme, but the giant guitars don’t lend themselves well to this type of subtlety.
Its important to remember, that, in fact, this is only half of The “real” Smashing Pumpkins. But how much importance should this be given exactly? Corgan is clearly the singular driving force behind the band and Jimmy Chamberlin seems determined to follow him wherever he wants to go both physically and musically. Chamberlin is a highly underrated drummer, adding something rhythmically unique to each track to which he contributes. This is by far his most aggressive drumming – its like an entire album of “Cash Car Star”-type stuff. Chamberlin often parallels the rhythms of a song’s primary melody (rather than merely keeping pace), as he did previously in tracks like “Tonight, Tonight” and “Cherub Rock”, which is especially present in “7 Shades of Black” and “Bring the Light”. Additionally, he prevents Corgan from using absurdly out of date-sounding drum machine sounds, such as those found on TheFutureEmbrance. Though certainly the overdramatic, emo lyrics don’t help, the boring kick-kick-snare drum machine of “To Love Somebody” is just bad. I don’t know how to defend Corgan’s choice here. I realize this was a “solo” album, but c’mon, better stuff can easily be drawn up in less than an hour in Fruity Loops. James Iha does seem to be have been a mediating force for Corgan’s technological desires, pushing for the country-esque, low-key ballads. I unfortunately have little clue as to D’arcy’s creative contributions to The Smashing Pumpkins, but they did create their best music with her around in the studio (Mellon Collie), so it’s difficult to disregard her. It can be argued that Corgan/Chamberlin are the “true” Pumpkins, having successfully recorded Siamese Dream with mostly Corgan’s bass and guitar.
I also have issues with the overtly political nature of the artwork and found in some of the tracks. I dislike shallow, political messages and find them, for lack of a better word, tacky. For one, they often lose their independent effectiveness, needing context to frame them. Many anti-Vietnam war songs, beat-you-over-the-head-message feminist art such as Womanhouse, and early ’90s rave music really doesn’t make any sense and certainly holds little aesthetic appeal unless taken in context of the current political and sociological climate. It’s not so much being able to take in the gestalt of a work that concerns me here so much as it is that art/music that I like doesn’t embarrass me with excessively overt and entirely unsubtle cultural references. Its entirely unnecessary to present me with images of Paris Hilton and an atom bomb as found on the cover of the Tarantula single in addition to tracks such as “For God and Country”. I get it already.
Anyways, back to the more formal aspects of Zeitgeist. The most noticeable difference for me between previous Pumpkins albums is the way in which Billy Corgan’s voice is recorded and affected. There’s a lot of what I’ve nicknamed in my mind, “Billy chorus” – that is, where multiple tracks of Corgan singing are layered. Such a technique has been applied successfully in the past, but in tracks like “Doomsday Clock” and “Bring the Light” its a bit much. Additionally the solo vocals stand out a lot compared to previous albums. The balance between vocals and instrumentation seems to be skewed much further in the direction of the vocals so as to make for a disconcerting effect that makes the vocals sound completely distinct from the instrumentation. This applies more so to the heavier tracks, rather than the lighter ones like “Neverlost”. Even in more recent albums such as Machina, the vocals were affected with similar reverb or filters as the drums and/or guitar (“Raindrops + Sunshowers”) or otherwise buried Corgan’s wails in distorted guitar (“The Crying Tree of Mercury”). I think its important to note that I, in fact, really like Billy Corgan’s voice (I’d have to in order to like the “Landslide” cover) – its just the volume balance with the hard rock, metally guitar that I find disconcerting. I can’t imagine that Alan Moulder or Flood would have allowed something like that. Heck, Flood even managed to keep most of the drum machine stuff in Adore from being absurd.
Well, after all that, I’m going to say that there is a bunch of good stuff on the album. “Doomsday Clock”, “7 Shades of Black”, and “Tarantula” have some tasty riffs which are enjoyable even if the vocals are a bit strange. “Bleeding the Orchid” is based around the “Billy chorus”, which is a surprisingly interesting novelty, though the track title and chorus does lead me to some uncomfortable Georgia O’Keeffe related imagery. “That’s the Way (My Love Is)” is a forgettable track only memorable for its appearance on the car commercial (I can’t imagine Billy Corgan is happy about that). “Bring the Light” and “Starz” have some fun syncopation and some nice finger-drumming tappability, an important quality to me in songs. The intro to “Bring the Light” really has some great soft chord progressions in there that I wish were repeated more throughout the song. The opening riffs are probably my favorite moment of the album. The last half of the album has a few interesting things going on worth mentioning. “Pomp and Circumstances” is a very grandiose, reverb-filled song, which accurately reflects its name. The plucked strings really are lovely though. With “Neverlost”, these two tracks possess the most distinct textures. “Stellar” has some nice guitar effects and a soft electric guitar part which bridges back to the main riff and sets up the expectations for the title and final track of the album, “Zeitgeist”. “Zeitgeist” is a welcome lo-fi departure from the techy tracks of the rest of the album. It even features Corgan doing some broken/mumbly singing as found in the chorus of “My Mistake”. I can’t recall having heard it on any other songs, but its something I’d like to here more of in future Pumpkins songs.
On the whole, I’d say that the album certainly has some quality aspects to it; however, its too strongly invested in the catchy guitar riffs and standard verse/chorus structure. The lack of any progressing songs (“Soma”), songs with through-composed lyrics (“1979”), or those with otherwise out-there structure (“Glass and the Ghost Children”) is disappointing. The tech-heavy approach is entirely expected, though I was hoping for more than just a single concluding acoustic track – perhaps a piano-based song along the lines of “For Martha”. Overall, lightyears ahead of TheFutureEmbrace, but lacking the high concept and creative song textures of Machina. Also, I find typing “Zeitgeist” difficult.