The quest for pop ultimately hobbles Billy Corgan
Joe Goggins
10:55 27th November 2020

Billy Corgan remains nothing if not consistent. At 53, he’s as prolific now as he’s ever been; this new twenty-track Smashing Pumpkins record follows a seventeen-song solo album, Cotillions, from last year, whilst he already claims to have a further 46 ideas on deck for the next full-band effort. He remains, too, as intimately involved with the mythos of the Pumpkins as he was when he dreamed up the idea as a teenager; still enamoured with the fantasy land he built around himself, he continues to use Instagram to document the painstaking process of reissuing 2000’s unfairly-maligned Machina/The Machines of God, affording it the same expansive treatment that the band’s more popular albums have already received.

Plus, Corgan being Corgan, his ambition endures. As an artist, he sees only in panoramas of potential, something integral to his greatest successes - Siamese Dream’s rejection of grunge’s suffocating gloom, the sweeping stylistic breadth of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the daring foresight of Adore’s descent into murky electronica. It also sheds light on more recent failures, particularly the ultimately abandoned Teargarden by Kaleidyscope project; envisioned as a 44-track concept opus built around the Tarot, it saw Corgan bite off more than he could chew.

Now, with only bassist D’Arcy Wretzky missing from the classic Pumpkins lineup, you wonder whether their latest undertaking, Shiny and Oh So Bright, is headed the same way. It’s an era of the band that kicked off with the reunion tour of the same name, which saw them do the one thing Corgan had always sworn not to - play the hits, exclusively. What followed was No Past. No Future. No Sun., an uncharacteristically brief eight-tracker on which they tried on an eclectic array of hats: driving power-pop on ‘Silvery Sometimes’, arena aggression on ‘Solara’, moody atmospherics on the standout ‘With Sympathy’. Elsewhere, the bizarre, shape-shifting ‘Knights of Malta’ suggested Corgan’s stylistic wanderlust had become intense enough for him to cram several different genres into the same song.

That is not an accusation you could level at him with regard to Cyr, which in many ways feels like a direct about-face. At twenty tracks and precisely seventy-two minutes, we’re back to the sprawl of old, and Corgan’s restless desire for reinvention sees him break what is genuinely new ground for the Pumpkins. This is, by a distance, the poppiest record they’ve made, and arguably their synth-heaviest since Adore. 2012’s Oceania brought electronics to the palette, too, but in a manner that directly recalled Adore, augmenting the rock blueprint rather than upending it. Here, the design is minimalist, certainly by Pumpkins standards; spiralling synths, pulsing bass, unusual restraint behind the kit from Jimmy Chamberlin, and prominent backing vocals throughout from new recruit Sierra Swan and touring member Katie Cole.

Those who’ve paid attention to Corgan’s solo output of late will know that his songwriting has taken a turn for the tauter; Ogilala, his best collection either alone or with the Pumpkins since Machina, was a bare-bones affair that relied on subtle hooks and elegant melody, whilst Cotillions’ flirtations with Americana were similarly sparse. The arrangements are similarly slender here, hence the modest instrumentation, and when it works, the results are slick; ‘Ramona’ is a deceptively simple earworm, the gently undulating electronics on ‘Schaudenfreud’ team with tasteful guitar work from Iha to make it into a gentle epic, and the shimmering title track feels like the record’s purest distillation of the pop aesthetic Corgan was aiming for.

That vision, though, ultimately hobbles Cyr; it sticks so closely within those sonic parameters that it quickly becomes very samey, enough to test the listener’s patience at a standard running time, let alone at well over an hour. The reason Mellon Collie remains one of the great arguments in favour of the double album model is that its diversity is its greatest strength; only in a longform presentation could furious hard rock (‘X.Y.U.’, ‘Tales of a Scorched Earth’) coexist in harmony with introspective pressure-releases like ‘To Forgive’ and ‘Thirty-Three’. Here, you could neatly cut the album in half with little fuss, and even then, it’s telling that the songs that’d survive the cull would be the ones that try to nudge past the basic structure; ‘Wyttch’, for instance, which repurposes the guitar for glam-pop stomp, or the brooding ‘Telegenix’, which plays like an introspective cousin to ‘Ava Adore’.

After years of declaring guitar music dead and admiring from afar the ability of electronic musicians to capture the zeitgeist and hold attention of a younger listenership, Cyr sounds like the modern-day Pumpkins record he set out to make from the start, when he taught himself how to use Logic and played around with making his own beats. The music, though, is only one part of it, and much of his band’s baggage comes with him for the ride - the grandiosity, the overblown scale, and lyrically, a lot of the same tired, pseudo-gothic imagery. He has, at least, gotten it out of his system - and by taking such a left turn, restored an air of mystery as to where the Pumpkins go next.

Cyr is out now. 

Photo: Press