The Lowdown: It’s been a real Lynchian experience for The Smashing Pumpkins in the years following 2000’s Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music, the last studio album to feature Billy Corgan, James Iha, and Jimmy Chamberlin. There was Zwan. There were solo albums. There was a half-reunion. There was a half-reunion record (see 2007’s Zeitgeist). There was another Chamberlin-less era. There were two Chamberlin-less albums (see: 2012’s Oceania and 2014’s Monuments to an Elegy). There were two nostalgic tours, both featuring Chamberlin and one bringing back Iha.
From there, we got some cats, we got apathetic trips to Disneyland, we got weird interviews with Alex Jones, and, yes, we got a 75% reunion tour that kept arenas gloomy all summer. Alas, we’ve finally reached Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun., an exhaustively titled reunion album produced by Rick Rubin that carries a lot of weight. It’s a recalibration for the band, albeit one with far less estrogen unfortunaely, finding Corgan, Iha, and Chamberlin on new songs together for the first time in 18 very long, very twisted, and very confusing years.
The Good: “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)” arrives early on the record, serving as a far more effective opening salvo than “Knights of Malta”, hearkening back to a time when this act was far more invested in coddling your heart than rocking your feet. It’s a strummer in the vein of “1979” or “Perfect” or “Try Try Try”, and Corgan hasn’t sounded this affective since “Home”, indulging in his teenage obsessions with The Cure. “We’re in the middle, we’re in the middle, ghosts,” he sings with gooey bruises. It’s gothic poetry that demands a white-out doodle on every millennial’s Five-Star notebook.
Such heights are scratched only momentarily throughout the album: Both “Knights of Malta” and “Alienation” thunder by with the help of Rubin’s muscular production, nailing the arena rock vibes that Roy Thomas Baker absolutely fumbled on Zeitgeist. “Travels” sounds like a balmy Zwan song, and it wouldn’t be surprising to discover it was part of that band’s rumored archive of recordings. And, finally, late stunner “With Sympathy” offers one of those spirited jogs that Corgan used to wedge midway through the older Pumpkins albums, grooving along with Iha’s ’90s autumnal rhythms.
The Bad: Unlike the Pumpkins’ last few releases, particularly Zeitgeist, the bad here really isn’t all that bad. In other words, it never gets ugly, and while it’d be unfair to say Corgan didn’t try in the past, you can tell he’s really giving it his all on this album — and that matters. Even so, there are some meandering lows on this album, mostly when this band tries to act like they still have another “Zero” in them. They don’t and probably never will, which is why the group’s strongest work over the last 18 years, both with or without the original team, is the soft and melancholy stuff.
They proved this with first single “Solara”, which was passed around like a wilted sample cup of fruit when it initially dropped this past summer — and for good reason. It’s a lifeless slice of rock that’s far more effective as an inoffensive deep cut than the resounding comeback single it wants to be. Yet that’s the problem with the heavier fare on this album: they’re all wearing pinstripes. The ugliest case of this is “Marchin’ On”, a greasy, sleazy rollercoaster of a song that belongs more to Velvet Revolver than, say, the shoegaze-loving rockers that broke through with “Cherub Rock”.
The Verdict: It’s been a lonely 18 years for Corgan, filled with all sorts of unpredictable twists and turns commercially, critically, and culturally. Be it sour grapes, impossible compromises, or simply shitty cell phone service, Corgan has mostly been toiling away by his lonesome, trying to sell the Pumpkins name as his own spectacle. To his credit, he’s never been one to lean on the past, and say what you will about his execution, but his attempts have all at least been in the service of forging ahead towards some kind of future that doesn’t stand directly on ceremony.
Strangely enough, everything that Corgan was trying to run away from is what might move him forward. Although his roots are in the Midwest, he’s long dreamed of being the big LA rock star, playing arenas and saving the world. (For Christ’s sake, he wrote an entire concept album about it.) Those days are long gone — that’s less his fault and more a sign of the times — but he’s never been closer to that fantasy. After all, they’re playing arenas. They’re doing late-night shows. They’re working with Rick Rubin. It’s a magical time for Corgan, who no longer sounds as if he’s singing in an echo chamber.
But reuniting takes time. People change — artists especially — and it’d be foolish to assume that three friends, torn apart by bitterness and rage, would just somehow all of a sudden strike up the same ol’ magic. That was never going to happen, no matter how many bathrobes Rubin gave them in Malibu, but it’s certainly proven to be a start. After all, how else do you explain a song like “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)”? It might not be the same magic, but something magical is coursing through Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1., hinting at a future we can all embrace — especially Corgan.
Essential Tracking: “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)”, “With Sympathy”, and “Travels”