The history of the Smashing Pumpkins' career is rife with ups and downs, grandeur and upsets. While the band released some of the most ambitious rock albums of the nineties, they spent most of the decade confusing their fans and critics, striking out to new territories when the old ones became tired and overdone.
In 1995, for example, the band released one of the most ambitious and successful concept albums, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, establishing themselves as one of the best alternative rock bands out there. The album was a commercial success as well, and is still one of the most successful double-disc albums of all time. Then, the band adored critics but confused fans with 1998's Adore, leaving many scratching their heads wondering: what is this stuff? (For the record, this music critic happens to think Adore is Smashing Pumpkins' best album and doesn't care that hardly anyone else agrees with him).
Such is the fate of a band that always did whatever they wanted whenever they wanted to, and who cares about the fans or the critics. It was a working formula actually, until Billy Corgan decided to re-form a half-assed version of the band with 2007's Zeitgeist. Promised to be a true return to form, Zeitgeist offered a few excellent gems (such as "That's the Way (My Love Is)" and "Tarantula"), but was mainly a lengthy caricature of their most famous stadium rock anthems. That, along with a poor audio mix and cheesy pseudo-political artwork, Zeitgeist fizzled away just as fast as it jumped into our laps promising Billy Corgan's messianic visions of rock and roll. By the time I got to the end of the year, I had completely forgotten about this album. And that's from the perspective of a huge Smashing Pumpkins fan.
So here we are with a new year, and Billy Corgan is promising more Smashing Pumpkins music. The American Gothic EP was released on iTunes this last week, and offers a departure from the behemoth that is Zeitgeist. For one, Corgan takes what made his acoustic offerings so powerful in the past, and tries to rediscover that edge.
American Gothic kicks off with "Rose March," a ballad that reminds me of the Machina days, and suggests that Corgan is going to be less retrospective on this collection. Indeed, the songs do much more musically that most of Zeitgeist. Songs like "Again, Again, Again (The Crux)" and "Pox," which take up the bulk of this short four-song EP, jump out at you with the subdued melancholy that has distinguished Corgan's better songwriting from the mundane and overdone. You can also hear the band attempting to pick up where they left off, as the songs feel much more in line with their late career albums than the attempt at making Gish II that ultimately ruined Zeitgeist.
If there is any complaint, it's that Corgan's vocals continue to sound strained, like he's outgrown his signature whine but continues to hide behind it, afraid to try something new. Despite his reputation for experimentation and new instrumentation, Corgan has never changed his vocal style, and it's starting to sound annoying. It doesn't help any that American Gothic suffers from the same bad studio mix, making the guitars sound too harsh and the vocals too "tinny" loud, drowning out some of the beautiful drums, organ, and electric guitar work. On "Sunkissed," the EP's last song, it takes several listens before you notice some incredibly complex dueling acoustic guitar riffs, but because of the bad mix, it's hard to hear it.
Overall, American Gothic might signal a different style for the Smashing Pumpkins' next full-length album, and we might see the band return to its more folksy roots. And if there's any advice that I can give the band for their next album, it's this: try something new. Don't forget that that's what ultimately made the Smashing Pumpkins one of the hugest bands of the nineties, and it might help you on your second reunion as well.