Smashing Pumpkins – Monuments To An Elegy Review
Review by Kelly O
Say what you will about Corgan, he’s never lacked belief in his own ability as a songwriter and artist. Even back in the 90’s during the Smashing Pumpkins heyday, Billy often deflected the arrows of critics and fans alike but his innate talent and the Pumpkin grandiose vision helped the band step over the wreckage of grunge and carve out their own place in the musical landscape. This culminating the era define Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness. Of all the 90’s Alt-Rock bands, the Smashing Pumpkins seemed the most likely to go the distance.Then came the fall.
We all know the tale of Jimmy Chamberlin and his heroine addiction, the death of touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin and Chamberlin’s ultimate dismissal. Underachieving Sadness follow-up Adore. Bassist D’Arcy Wrestzky quitting. Chamberlin gets rehired. Record the labyrinthine concept album Machina/The Machines of God which tanked. Broke up. Reforms with a new line-up and put out the grindingly relentless Zeitgeist to the blank stares of the music public. More line-up changes and more albums, dwindling fan interest and ultimately, Corgan turns into a punch line.
It’s not hard to see why. Always a sickly looking fellow, he’s the type of guy you want to give a bowl of soup and then get him out in the sun. Corgan himself has listed off an unconfirmed array of health complaints, including mercury, arsenic and lead poisoning. Alleged lung damage from when he lived in Lower Manhattan after 9/11. He is “chronically, medically” dehydrated, allergic to alcohol and has weak ankles. He also has paranoid rants about the US economic climate, the H1N1 vaccine and the teachings of The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ. When pressed in interviews to expand on this he simply states…”I don’t want to be a dead hero”.
It’s easy to get distracted from the fact the Corgan is a talent and talent always has a way of shining through.
Cue the ambitious Teargarden by Kaleidyscope project and the “album-within-an-album” Oceania. Hailed as a return to the classic Pumpkin sound and style of supersonic guitar work, complex drums and panoramic arrangements, Corgan has found himself on a career upswing.
Then his band suffered another line-up purge.
Without missing a step, Corgan recruited Motely Crue drummer Tommy Lee and set about doing what he always does, record all the guitars, bass, keyboards and vocals himself. The result is Monuments to an Elegy.
So how did it turn out?
2) Being Beige
4) One and All
5) Run 2 Me
6) Drum Plus Fife
The first thing to note is how stripped back the songs and production is. When people think of Smashing Pumpkins they think of bombast. Lots of it. Conspicuously absent are the intricate drum patterns that ebb and flowed with Corgans riffs and chord progressions. In their place is a series of restrained backbeats. It takes some getting used too.
Secondly, the songs. Jettisoned are the long and winding tunes Corgan is prone to writing. In are a group of 3-4 minute songs that remain steadfastly uncluttered by bloated arrangements and similarly, the instrumentation has been left to breath. Gone are the densely layered guitars. In are 80’s synth flourishes and tinkering keyboard line and an almost breezy wistfulness to the sound.
This is not your Daddy’s Smashing Pumpkins.
This is a complete 180 degree turn from Oceania.
Tommy Lee’s impact on the sound is front and centre. A monster drummer to this day, he fits more into the classic rock drummer mold, prepared to hold the backbeat and create a pocket for the rhythms to sit in. Previously, the drums always drove the songs. I’m not sure if this was the most effective way forward for Elegy. It lacks a certain spark given the album an overall flat feeling.
Not that there isn’t some fine moments. Opener “Tiberius” is the closest we have to a classic Pumpkins arrangement. From the ¾ time signature, lilting backing vocals, a tribal force bridge and corkscrew riffing, it is a fine opener. Ditto “Anti-Hero” with it’s blues heavy chords a la AC/DC dominating the verse before breaking out into a big chorus. “Monuments” tries for the same formula but the lack of compelling drums patterns hurts the overall feel. This was the song that could have used some nice tom-tom, percussive playing.
“Run 2 Me” comes off like Cold Play was alive and well in the 80’s. This isn’t a bad thing! It has a fun 80’s pop sound and Corgan sounds downright chipper as he sings “my special one/run to me”. It took me a while to adjust to the shift in tone but it ranks as a successful experiment. Less successful is “Anaise” which starts with a funky baseline that quotes “Eye Of The Tiger” but unfortunately doesn’t have much else to it.
The most successful experiment is on the first single “Drums Plus Fife”. Its moody melodies and gangly guitar play well off Lee’s stoic backbeat. It also features Corgan’s most defiant lyrics (“I will bang this drum/to my dying day”). This rewards repeated listens.
Despite some fine moments, it doesn’t excuse the lack of purpose you feel on these songs. After listening to this album four or five times I feel like these are more like demos. Considering I was provided the FLAC audio files to review, you’d expect a bright, thick and clear sound. This is not the case. This hurts Elegy a lot.
To frame this album better, Monuments to an Elegy comes off like Adore was to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. While certainly not bad, it’s inferior to the much superior work it’s following and not amount of shift in sound can hide the fact it’s not as good.