Smashing Pumpkins, ‘Monuments to an Elegy’ — Album Review
Billy Corgan apparently doesn’t like to make it easy to appreciate new Smashing Pumpkins music. When he isn’t antagonizing the likes of Eddie Vedder, Soundgarden and Anderson Cooper or pompously declaring that he and Kurt Cobain were the top two songwriters of the ‘90s (“Everybody else was a distant third,” he believes), Corgan is constantly tinkering with the classic Pumpkins sound to follow ever-changing self-indulgences. But after a decade of questionable decisions both on and offstage, ‘Monuments to an Elegy’ hints that Corgan might be on the verge of getting things back on track -- well, the music, at least.
One aspect of the band that’s obviously changed since their heyday is that Smashing Pumpkins aren’t really a band at all -- it’s all Corgan joined by a constantly revolving cast of background musicians. While the current incarnation of the Pumpkins includes the Killers bassist Mark Stoermer and Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk, neither had anything to do with the songs on ‘Monuments’ -- the ninth Smashing Pumpkins album and the second installment of the ‘Teargarden by Kaleidyscope’ concept that began with the 2010 EPs ‘Songs for a Sailor’ and ‘The Solstice Bare’ and continued with 2012’s full-length ‘Oceania.’ Instead, Corgan turned to perhaps the unlikeliest of collaborators -- Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee -- for help writing the album’s nine songs.
But, possibly more importantly, he re-enlisted producer Howard Willing (who helmed 1998’s ‘Adore’ and 2000’s ‘Machina/The Machines of God’) and engineer Howie Weinberg (who mastered 1993’s ‘Siamese Dream’ and 1995’s ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’). The result is an album that’s far more focused than his recent output, but still frustratingly uneven. While the classic guitar distortion is back, Corgan continues to drown everything in cheesy synths (most akin to his 2005 solo album ‘TheFutureEmbrace’) and downright embarrassing lyricism (we count at least six songs on which he uses the term ‘lover’ or ‘my love,’ apparently never having seen this classic SNL sketch).
'Monuments to an Elegy' kicks off convincingly enough with the driving 'Tiberius' which, while never coming close to the urgency Corgan conveyed as a rage-filled rat in a cage in 1995, is still the most engaging rocker on the album. A few other songs ('One and All' and 'Anti-Hero') stick close to the template, but much of the album is filled with play-by-numbers radio fodder (the appropriately titled 'Being Beige') and head-scratchers (the dated dance-pop of 'Run2me' and the Matthew McConaughey-evoking "alright alright alright" of 'Monuments').
Although there are certainly scattered moments that flirt with the Smashing Pumpkins of old (Corgan seems intent on recapturing some of the magic from 'Mellon Collie') the synths and sonic left turns mean this is still decidedly new-school Pumpkins. While it's undoubtedly better than efforts like 2007's 'Zeitgeist' and obviously Smashing Pumpkins (which, for some, automatically elevates it above most attempts at modern rock), 'Monuments to an Elegy' still rings mostly hollow compared to the authenticity that seethed through the band's best work.
But depending on how tempered your expectations are -- and how much Corgan you can tolerate -- it still makes for a decent listen.