The “world is a vampire”, and nowhere can this be seen more than in the often-parasitic nature of the music industry. With this in mind, it’s nice to see icons of old steadfastly rage on and surprise us devoted fans. Manson has been enjoying a renaissance of late by buckling down, perfecting his venom, and storming at our ears for another shot. Mr. Reznor is now an Oscar-winning Apple employee whose influence is as powerful with tech nerds as it is with those who only wear black. Then we have one Billy Corgan. A perfectionist, purveyor of grandiose angst and known curmudgeon who has unexpectedly handed over eleven tracks to get the classic Rick Rubin stripback.
Now, there have been some absolute gems of restraint in the Pumpkins catalogue — ‘Sweet, Sweet’ and ‘Obscured’ just to name a couple, but listeners have never been given the chance to hear Corgan this raw outside a live setting.
The songwriter is known for his lavish production — after all, you don’t write something as absorbing and iconic as ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ by resting on your laurels. More so than any other of his ‘90s contemporaries, Corgan would happily ignore the raw sound of the day in favour of the layered approach of bands like Queen or the atmospheric spookery of The Banshees, both big influences. However, over time he fell into hedonism with his grand schemes — the confusing release of the ‘Teargarden by Kaleidyscope’ EPs, the one-off supergroups, the full-page newspaper ad declarations. The 21st Century has been a state of constant flux and often hard to follow.
So here we stand in 2017, a now 50-year-old Corgan removing all pomp and ceremony and switching to his birth name to give fans something a bit more manageable. Sure, this may also accompany a 40-minute black and white film focused on death and mythology named ‘PillBox’, but at its heart are the songs. Fine songs they are too, a few matching the tender melancholy that bewitched so many listeners to begin with. ‘Zowie’, a tribute to our beloved Starman, starts the record, sparse haunting piano accompanying Corgan’s biblical imagery and distinctive vocals. Original Pumpkins member James Iha pops up on the following ‘Processional’, an obvious highlight that clearly shows that the duo are still able to make magic together. Joyous yearning really doesn’t come better than this.
‘The Spaniards’ marries the songwriter’s love of classical imagery — dragons, conquests, bodices, etc — with some good old-fashioned romantic longing to fine effect. ‘The Long Goodbye’ stands as another highpoint, an almost Neil Young campfire quality blending remarkably well with a grand tale of star-crossed love. The bafflingly, bafflingly titled ‘Half-Life Of An Autodidact’ proves the LPs most unexpected treat, this icon of the disenfranchised going full-on coffee shop folky with a rewardingly sprightly acoustic number. Then there’s the moving ‘Archer’, a beautiful coda surrounded by plucked strings drenched in ghostly reverb. Tonally it resembles The Smiths ‘Asleep,’ the listener lulled away to a sea of nostalgia, the haunting lyric “I’m just the archer for the sun” ringing out into the night.
‘Ogilala’ is nothing particularly new or revolutionary for fans, more a strong reminder that there’s a reason why Corgan managed to shift millions of units with his brand of moody rock. He’s a damn fine songwriter, one who could pump out a top-notch melodramatic love song before he’s had his first coffee in the morning. A dive into more recent releases show that he’s never truly lost this ability, just perhaps some of the focus. For once it’s just nice to hear the bare bones.
Words: Sam Walker-Smart
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