Billy Corgan’s 33-track rock opera monster is finally offered up in its complete form. But when taken in individual pieces it works much better
The Smashing Pumpkins, American alternative godheads, formed in 1988. Theinitial lineup included Billy Corgan (vocals, guitar), James Iha (guitar), D’arcy Wretzky (bass), and Jimmy Chamberlin (drums). The band quickly gained popularity with their first three albums: Gish (1991), Siamese Dream (1993), and Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness (1995).
These albums were critically acclaimed and commercially successful – and excellent, each for different reasons – with Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness selling over 10 million copies in the United States alone. The band’s unique sound, blending heavy guitar riffs with introspective lyrics, resonated with a wide audience and established them as one of the defining bands of the 1990s alternative rock scene.
However, after the release of Mellon Collie, tensions within the band began to escalate, leading to the departure of Chamberlin in 1996. The band continued on with various lineup changes, but Corgan assumed full control of the band’s direction and creative output, releasing Adore – which Corgan called “the sound of a band falling apart” and “one of the most painful experiences of my life” – in 1998. Since that point, the band’s popularity has waned, with subsequent albums receiving mixed reviews and declining sales. The band went on hiatus in 2000 and officially disbanded in 2001. They reformed in 2005 with a new lineup and have released several albums since then, but their commercial success and critical acclaim have not reached the heights of their early career.
Overall, Smashing Pumpkins’ career peaked with their first three albums, which established them as one of the most influential and successful alternative rock bands of the 1990s. However, subsequent lineup changes and Corgan’s control of the band’s direction have led to a decline in their popularity and critical reception. To put it simply, Corgan was never as good alone as he was with a band. Even Zwan had moments of inspiration and brilliance that were sorely missed from Pumpkins albums like Zeitgeist. Their last album, Cyr, was a disappointment – an extra long disappointment – that did nothing to soothe the pain of the genuinely terrible 2018 album Shiny And Oh So Bright Vol 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun. Before that, Monuments To An Elegy, featuring Tommy Lee on drums, was passable, and 2012’s Oceania was decent, but was released right in the middle of a reissue programme – where Corgan issued remastered editions of their first three albums. Needless to say, it paled in comparison.
So it’s with great trepidation that fans of the band received news of the release of a ‘three act rock opera’ called Atum (sounds like Autumn), billed as the sequel to Mellon Collie and 2000’s Machina/Machine Of God. Of course, Corgan had announced and subsequently binned many multi-album conceptual works over the years, but this one seemed to be actually happening. After a staggered release schedule, where parts of the album were released over six months or so, it’s here at last, in a monstrous two-plus hour final form. At 33 songs (an extra 10 bringing the total to 43 for the deluxe edition), it’s a tricky and unwieldy beast that spends a lot of time clinging desperately to the urge to not be boring. There’s a lot here that is boring, but a surprising amount isn’t. It’s a real head-scratcher.
If you want to divvy it up into thirds, then the best record of the three is the last one, which is probably the only one that many people will regularly return to. Sojourner, The Canary Trainer and Cenotaph stand out as highlights, but the whole thing is actually pretty good. Moss, which is on the second disc, is also a winner. Butterfly Suite, from the first, goes for classic Pumpkins sounds and largely manages to replicate them. Elsewhere, you have Every Morning sounds like it was made for a Stranger Things montage; Beguiled sounds like Ghost playing an INXS song, or at least She Drives Me Crazy by Fine Young Cannibals. The mixture of synthpop, prog and rock is baffling at times, at others completely bizarre.
The album, when taken as a whole, is simply too much. When taken as individual pieces, it works much better – and there’s simply no reason for it to be this long, unless Billy is doing it for the cold hard cash (and an album this big necessitates a box set, non?). If you’re already a fan, you can easily pick 10 highlights to make a playlist. If you’re a fan of Tangerine Dream, Rush, INXS, Stranger Things or just general nostalgia then it might be worth a shot in small doses. If you’re new to the band, curious and fancy listening to the whole thing in one go, do yourself a favour – don’t. Listen to their first three albums on shuffle with a few short synth-pop instrumentals and you’ll have a much improved listening experience. And that’s coming from a fan of the band.