Monuments to an Elegy is the penultimate record in The Smashing Pumpkins’ long-running album cycle Teargarden by Kaleidyscope. It hits stores December 9 via BMG. Head Pumpkin Billy Corgan has stated that the other album he and guitarist Jeff Schroeder are currently working on, Day for Night, will close this ambitious album series that first rolled out via a different approach in late 2009. but which really took off with the critically acclaimed Oceania in 2012.
If you’ve kept up with all things SP, you know by now that bassist Nicole Fiorentino and drummer Mike Byrne are no longer in the band. They had other projects they wanted to do (examples being Fiorentino’s group with Patty Schemel and Meghan Toohey, The Cold and Lovely, and Byrne’s pre-SP band Bearcubbin’). But you can’t do side projects if they chance interfering with SP commitments. Hence, their quiet exit earlier this year. There’s no animosity between them and Corgan as far as we know, and he maintains they are all still friends. For this new record, Corgan took up Schroeder’s suggestion to track down Tommy Lee to record the drum parts while he had some downtime before heading out with Motley Crue for their final tour. (Corgan and Lee first met back in 1991 when the latter saw SP play live.)
Lee stated in an interview not too long ago that Monuments sounds like the first two classic SP albums (Gish and Siamese Dream) and is “probably the best record he’s ever written.” That may be hype or how he truly feels, but one thing is clear. This isn’t a record that can be pinned down and compared to any one or even two eras of the Pumpkins’ past. “Tiberius,” “Monuments,” and “One and All (We Are)” bring back the hard-hitting old-school early or mid-’90s glory days, while others like the retro stuttering synth-heavy “Run2Me” and the bright electronics and melodies of first single “Being Beige” follow similar recent efforts: “One Diamond, One Heart” from Oceania regarding the former, and earlier TBK singles such as “Owata” with respect to the latter tune.
With its catchy beat, sparkling synths and cold but hazy guitars, “Dorian” is the best dream pop-ish number Corgan has written since “1979.” Its overall ’80s aura effectively draws to mind Echo & The Bunnymen – think “Lips Like Sugar.” Of course, Corgan’s admiration of that group and other ’80s faves like Depeche Mode is no secret and previously surfaced on his first true solo release, The Future Embrace (2004).
Speaking of ’80s influences, Big Country was reportedly on the mind of Corgan when he wrote the latest track to be released from the album, “Drum + Fife.” Though it has a clearly contemporary sound (probably due to the album’s mixer David Bottrill or producer Howard Willing, who first worked with Corgan/SP on the sentimental fan favorite 1998 album Adore), you can hear the resemblance to that one-hit wonder’s self-titled hit in the song’s main beat. Corgan recently let it be known (to NME) that Lee gave the song the energy it needed, and it shows.
“Monuments” is where Corgan and Lee combine to deliver the album’s most powerful punch, with punishing kick drums and cymbal splashes complementing Corgan’s monstrous, midtempo and sludgy guitar riffs. As if that wasn’t enough of a good thing, the deep bass lines that come in during the mid-song breakdown instantly recall the booming sound of old gems like “Set the Ray to Jerry” (B-side from the “1979” single) and even Gish. That’s probably because Corgan plays all the bass parts on this record, just as he had to do on Gish and SD when D’arcy couldn’t get the job done to his and producer Butch Vig’s satisfaction. When Lee praised the songs on this album a while ago, he said he was “blown away” and got “goose bumps” when he heard them. Hearing those bass lines may have been one of the “goose bump” moments for him. It was for me.
At just under 33 minutes, MTAE is the most concise studio album of Billy Corgan’s career – no epic prog rockers like the title track to Oceania this time around. It is in essence a loud, guitar-based record of potent love/lover-themed songs with synth pop elements throughout. It is similar to Oceania in that respect, though the synths here are a bit more retro-sounding here.
There are very few weaknesses to speak of here – namely, the light melodic pop rock of “Being Beige” and the urgent “Anaise!” Neither are bad songs, mind you, but ones that just don’t pull you in on an emotional level that you’ve come to expect and hope for in Pumpkins tunes. The former tune I’m actually warming up to the more I listen to it, and the latter cut actually starts out with a promising, dare I say, almost funky bass line but later loses itself a bit amidst Corgan’s crooning/falsetto vocals and a so-so chorus. There are also surprisingly some generic lyrics from the normally very poetic Corgan in a couple of places – “One and all/We are, we are so young” on “One and All,” for example. But those dull moments are few and far between.
Monuments to an Elegy is the most enjoyable Smashing Pumpkins record from start to finish in years. Oceania was terrific on the whole as well (and universally hailed as better than the 2007 comeback album Zeitgeist, even though it too was a pretty damn good record), but there were times you still wanted to skip around to your favorite tracks. In an era where the attention span among music listeners is seemingly getting shorter and shorter, Billy Corgan has smartly come up with nine mostly strong and relatively short, compact cuts (all but one under four minutes). This is an album for longtime loyalists, (newer) Oceania fans, and perhaps even some of those fair weather fans stuck in the ’90s, mindlessly wishing for the original lineup to reform. Time will tell.
The Smashing Pumpkins will do a short world tour starting November 26 in Corgan’s hometown of Chicago, with an all-star lineup consisting of drummer Brad Wilk (Rage Against The Machine/Audioslave) and bassist Mark Stoermer (The Killers) joining Corgan and Schroeder for all dates. To keep up with all things Smashing Pumpkins, including pre-ordering info, visit smashingpumpkinsnexus.com and fan sites like Crestfallen.com.
Key tracks: “Monuments,” “Drum + Fife,” “Tiberius,” and “Dorian”
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