‘It’s a bit of a rubbish title, isn’t it?’ A petty quibble, perhaps but first impressions count for a lot and this was my genuine reaction to seeing the name of this new Smashing Pumpkins record, scrolling along the top of my phone’s screen via my chosen streaming platform. It set me thinking what I might expect from such a preposterously titled album; the arena-rock bombast that the Pumpkins have, for better or worse, become the masters of, or worse, indulgent balladry- the kind which made the already grandiose Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness feel bloated and flabby. But the actual product has none of these things. What it does have is eight tracks, clocking in at just over thirty minutes, and almost no hallmarks of being a Smashing Pumpkins album.
Some fans have leapt for joy at the prospect of new material featuring original guitarist James Iha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain alongside the vocal/guitar stylings of Billy Corgan- the only constant member in the band’s 20+ year career- but years of mediocre albums from Corgan and a revolving cast of collaborators has made me immune to such optimism. If SHINY AND OH SO BRIGHT proves anything it is that Corgan appears to have almost total creative control and, as a result, this album feels just as unessential as any other Pumpkins album since 1995.
This is not to say it doesn’t have its moments. Knights of Malta is a decent opener with its dramatic strings and ebbing piano chords, a muscular, driving bass line courtesy of Jack Bates who stands in for D’arcy Wretzky and thus prevents a reunion full-house, as it were. Billy’s backing vocals that seem to be aping a talk box are a little distracting, but the kicker is that the track feels as though it’s building to a soaring guitar solo or an anthemic chorus that never comes. Instead we have tasteful, gospel vocals in the chorus’ and it bows out gracefully with those strings again. Not so much pulling you by your lapels into the album, but a vague, beckoning instead.
Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts) is much better. A propulsive guitar riff backed by Chamberlain’s crisp drums that drive the singalong chorus along at a good pace. Think of it as a solid post-2000’s Manic Street Preachers track or a sub-par Placebo number, if you’re still with me. The sunny chords of Travels take us somewhere less enjoyable, ironically. The lyrics are the usual mix of astronomical musing and lovelorn navel-gazing, business as usual for Corgan, and instrumentally it’s pretty and not unpleasant to listen to but for a track this unremarkable to be allowed to run longer than five minutes is a misstep that should have been corrected. Then we have Solara, as far as I can tell a track that Corgan salvaged from the recycling outside Dave Grohl’s house. No, really, sonically it’s a dead ringer for an offcut from the last Foo Fighters album, even the lyrics sound similar. ‘Tear down the Sun/I’m not everyone’ snarls Billy in the chorus over chunky, distorted guitars and Chamberlain’s best drum fills on the album. Better than Travels but, like I say, it doesn’t sound much like Pumpkins at all, it could have been recorded by anyone.
Having another ballad so soon after the last one probably made me poorly disposed towards Alienation before it had even started but it doesn’t help itself with lyrics like ‘Truth gets dumped by charge/Which deigns how I’ve arrived/Via an old, archaic slingshot’; points for getting one of my favourite words in there Billy but honestly, you’re writing about space travel, can you not be a bit less dull about it? The track briefly comes alive in the chorus with acoustic guitar flourishes and those same, movie soundtrack strings again but it doesn’t warrant a repeat listen and it doesn’t have any ideas good enough to carry it for five minutes.
The last three tracks do increase the temperature from tepid to something approaching a simmer; Marchin’ On in particular having one of the better riffs on the album, although I wish it wasn’t quite so constrained by the almost aggressively clean production. The whole thing ends well enough with Seek and You Shall Destroy. Again, Chamberlain’s drums being allowed to shine through makes all the difference to the song and he sounds much more prominent in the mix. The twin guitar interplay of Iha and Corgan works well and the chorus is, for once, memorable. It’s a solid end to an album that doesn’t feel like a new beginning or a rousing comeback, merely another instalment in the long-running Billy Corgan show, now in its tenth season.
In their recent gigs the Pumpkins have been playing outrageously long sets, often rocking around thirty songs for over three hours. And among all the crowd-pleasing hits and B-sides that fans are eager to hear, there have been indulgent covers and moments of grandeur intended, apparently, just to massage Corgan’s ego. I am disappointed then to report that this same self-interest runs through TWINKLE TWINKLE (or whatever it’s called) like ‘Brighton’ through a stick of rock. Even with two members from what fans bray is ‘the classic line-up’ added to proceedings, this is the least Smashing Pumpkins sounding record yet. Glimmers of wonder surrounded by a yawning, black void: avoid.