So once again, Captain Billy Corgan leads his team onto the field. And once again, it’s a whole new team – drummer Jimmy Chamberlin has re-departed, and a new young lady steps into D’arcy Wretzky’s bass shoes. Quite why the bassist is always a woman is a bit of a mystery; you could follow that logic to its conclusion, and end up replacing Corgan with Patrick Stewart with the integrity of the band entirely intact.
Nevertheless, the makeshift line-up have succeeded in making what is comfortably the best post-reformation Pumpkins album, and one that for brief moments matches their intimidating canon. Opener Quasar announces itself with a stabbing riff that recalls Cherub Rock, and not even the odd pretentious line (“Yod he va he om”, for god’s sake) or slight resemblence to Zeitgeist-era bore United States can spoil it. The Chimera is even better, with buzzing guitar harmonies not quite overwhelming a wistful chorus that wouldn’t sound out of place as a Gish single.
But retreads are one thing, however successful and entertaining. What of Corgan’s self-confessed desire to move forward and seek new pastures? The results are mixed – where songs don’t steal from their own back catalogue, they still tend to look backwards for inspiration. But this matters little when the songwriting is so strong – Pale Horse may sound like The Cure, but the persistent guitar refrain lingers longer in the mind.
Highlights abound, with room here to do little more than scratch the surface. The Celestials’ acoustic beginnings build to a luminous, epic chorus, imploring his listener “never let the summer catch you down” – an infectious optimism that spills over into Panoptican (“there’s a sun that shines in”). The Moog arpeggios and electronic drums of One Diamond, One Heart suggest Death Cab For Cutie, with a sweet recorder line trilling away between Corgan’s curiously comforting vocals. And the baggy ’90s beat underpinning Glissandra’s sliding guitar figure is unexpected and cheering.
Despite young drummer Mike Byrne’s undoubted ability, Chamberlin’s presence is sorely missed – he was the David Gower of rock percussion, deftly flicking songs to the boundaries with insouciant skill and ease, where too many numbers here are bludgeoned crudely over the fence with an agricultural disregard for subtlety. And the record sinks badly in the middle, like an undercooked lemon cake – Pinwheels jettisons an interesting Postal Service-esque intro for a dreary acoustic strum dedicated to “Mother Moon”, and the title track splits its nine minutes into three equally unremarkable parts, a tryptych of tedium.
But on the whole it’s an album that finally, after a dozen years, shows that there can be a place for the Pumpkins in the 21st century. Their last tour, in support of Zeitgeist, fell victim to the folly of insisting on playing turgid new material at great length. At various times uplifting, rocking, refreshing, and sweet, Oceania makes a return to the live arena a suddenly desirable prospect.