“The Comeback Album” is one of rock’s great traditions, right up there with the sophomore slump, selling out, breaking-up and cashing in for a reunion tour. Every new Prince album since 1997 has been hyped to be his big comeback and none has delivered. Not that Oprah didn’t give us the hard sell by pulling a Tom Cruise couch jump while declaring “E-MAN-SIP-PAY-SHUN!!!!”
With Smashing Pumpkins’ Oceania, Billy Corgan steps up to the plate and stares his lovers and haters dead in the eye. He has two strikes against him (solo LP The Future Embrace and Zeitgeist). Then again, he has given away plenty of free peanuts (Machina II, all the previous Teargarden tracks) to keep the crowd cheering for him. I’ve been a fan since Corgan’s the Star Children opened for Big Hat at some dive by the Belmont L station in Chicago. I stayed loyal all the way through Zwan’s album launch party at the Museum of Science & Industry. Not even a year later, Zwan was no more, and the infinite sadness of Corgan fandom began.
In a recent interview with longtime ally Greg Kot, Billy admitted the stakes: “Our axiom for Oceania was you have one chance. Don’t expect anyone to listen seven times. They’ll listen one time if you’re lucky.”
So with that in mind, I decided to give Billy 60 minutes of my undivided attention to see if Oceania pays off with a single listen. I invited one of my greyhounds onto the sofa, heated some cold pizza, poured an Arnold Palmer and broke out my Bowers & Wilkins headsets. iTunes stream loaded. From here onward, I will write as I go. No rewinds. No rewrites.
Oh crap, this is a solid album stream, no song titles. I pull up the tracklist on Amazon. I promise myself (and Billy) to stay in the moment. No wandering to Popdose, TMZ, BoxOfficeMojo or Kamikaze Girls.
“Quasar” is first up. It sounds like “Cherub Rock” and “I Am One” are playing on top of each other. I check my other windows and applications to make sure I am not streaming two tracks at once. Nope, that’s it. Every dip along the main guitar line is filled with different guitar chords, runs, riffs and shreds – Billy throws everything in his arsenal at you. Once I give into the sonic pummeling, we’re off to a good start.
“Panopticon” is next. Billy sounds happy; so does his chorus of thundering guitars. Is Oceania also the “Zwan” comeback album I have been dreaming about for a decade? Paz, how I miss you. The band is on fire. Billy sings, “The sun shines for me.” During a guitar solo, I take a quick segue to Wikipedia figure out what the hell panopticon means.
“The Celestials” provides a welcome moment to breathe. Acoustic guitars. Synths. It sounds like someone is teaching themselves how to play bass. Billy coos “Everything I Want Is Free.” I’m starting to want this album but it will cost me ten bucks on June 19th.
“Violet Rays” begins with a woozy prog rock keyboard until the rest of the Pumpkins arrive with bombast. Billy sings “I’ll kiss anyone tonight.” Someone, give this man a hug. Oceania is batting 1000.
On “My Love is Winter,” Billy is either singing “my love is lost” or “my love is ghost” — perhaps both. Great track; the mix is brisk. The drums are urgent. Wait a minute, was that a hair metal guitar solo? The surprises keep coming.
“One Diamond One Heart” is ushered in on a bed of ’80s synths. Billy sings, “I’m always on your side.” I well up with happiness and promise myself to listen to Adore highlight “The Ballad of Dusty & Pistol Pete” the moment I am done writing this review.
“Pinwheels” starts off like an early OMD song. Synths give way to an echoing acoustic guitar build. He sings, “Floating away, I think I’ll change” and then he delivers on the promise. Electric guitars kick in and “Pinwheels” becomes a Saga song. “Mother moon, mistress of the sun.” Billy is joined by backup singers. Hopes that its D’arcy and James Iha are quickly dashed. Sounds more like Wendy & Lisa & Scritti Politti. Billy ends with, “You don’t deserve me, but I deserve you.” Something tells me these were his wedding vows.
The title track is on deck now. Amazon says it’s nine minutes long and since we all know how Billy can jam on “Superfuck” for three hours, I take a bathroom break (speakers maxed, wife annoyed). Green Day taught me that epic songs come in suites, so let’s see if that’s true. Suite #1 features swirling synths and a stoic bass line. “Lovers can’t touch you, cuz lovers might reach you,” followed by “I’m so alone, but better than I ever was.” Xylophone solo segue! Suite #2 begins with an acoustic guitar interlude. “Sweet baby, nurture me if you please.” Suite #3, trembling bass and galloping drums kick in, followed by some Kim Wilde synths. “The last remaining soldier wants to take his place with you.” That just about sums up Billy’s place in this world without D’Arcy, Iha and Jimmy Chamberlin by his side.
I’m starting to warm up to the new players. Drummer Mike Byrne is especially powerful. In swoops another flaming phoenix of a guitar solo. This song is starting to get awesome. Wait, is this song fading out during a guitar solo? Epic songs do not FADE OUT! Epic songs crash into brick walls or explode. Oh Billy, epic fail.
Am I listening to the song “Pale Horse” or is it another “Oceania” suite? I start crunching the numbers, only 20 minutes to go, this has to be a new song — and it’s a sweet one at that. The chorus is the word “Thyroxine” over and over. OK, I need to Google that. New window. Its a Thyroid medicine. Helps stimulate oxidization. Boosts metabolism. Billy sings “Please come back…” I am so busted.
On “Chimera,” Siamese Dream–era guitars return. I almost think the iTunes stream has reset and “Quasar” is playing again. “If I am wrong, I am right.” This attitude is why I both love and loathe Billy Corgan.
“Glissandra” is another one of those song titles that exists only in Billy’s world. While it steamrolls along, Billy’s lyrical abilities near naptime. “La la la la la,” he sings. “Inkless” is another solid song, I write, yada yada yada.
“Wildflower” ends the album in a waterfall of synths. “I’m wasted along the way to reach you…. When it’s far too gone, I am done.” One final guitar solo on a far away mountain top. And with another freaking fadeout (this one is forgivable), Oceania is no more.
So to sum up:
Add the Smashing Pumpkins to a list of dearly departed bands that have returned in recent years (Devo, Blancmange, Duran Duran, OMD) — not as nostalgia acts, but as bands that miraculously recaptured the spark that made them special in the first place before moving forward. With Oceania, Billy Corgan finally returns his beloved Smashing Pumpkins to the heights of greatness and excess that he walked away from in the year 2000. Your move, Prince.
I look forward to diving deep into this album over the summer to see how dead on or way off this snap judgement was.
Oceania is available June 19, 2012 and beyond at Amazon.