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Billy Corgan might be the smartest man in rock: smart enough to write songs about the futility of expression, in which his post-punk rancor fumes and howls against the failure of punk rancor, for what that was worth—which is nothing now, and how did that happen? Smart enough to recontextualize childhood as an ambivalent dream state free from sentimentalism. And certainly smart enough to lead the second band in history to make pop music out of humorless, prog-rock bombast and sell it back to the rock crowd.
But despite being so damn smart, Corgan has never figured out what the pop effort is for, and after the many magnificent moments on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the Smashing Pumpkins have been floundering in a dense sonic haze, all through 1998’s desultory Adore and the new Machina/The Machines of God. Concepts aside—and Pumpkins albums always act as if they have concepts, even when they don’t—humorless, prog-rock bombast cannot sustain itself in today’s cutthroat business environment, especially if you don’t bother to give it any tunes. Remember: Rock bands have oeuvres; pop bands have singles. And if the Smashing Pumpkins won’t admit they’re a singles band, what’s a Queen fan to do?
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Forge ahead blindly, apparently, and rewrite yourself in bits and pieces as often as you can get away with it. Style and hackery skirmish throughout Machina, until the music descends into a jumble of Corgan both not trying too hard and sparking up the muck with his instinctive offhand brilliance. The record kicks off with three songs that are all style and promise: “The Everlasting Gaze” is charged by a stinging guitar line and maximum nasal brattiness from Corgan, all set in his standard chunklike song structure with its tricky stop-and-start punch. Mean, questioning, and classically headbanging, it has single written all over it—the single being Mellon Collie’s “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” that is. Discernible melodies can also be found on the midtempo “Raindrops + Sunshowers” and “Stand Inside Your Love”—love songs of sorts, albeit as elliptical and image-laden as any of Corgan’s tormented sentence fragments. And “The Sacred and the Profane” goes blah, blah, blah, until the terrific, fuzzed-out chorus, which slips up and down with prayerful urgency.
Much of Machina verges on rock balladeering, and Corgan’s drippy-nerd side has never been so prominent and so unconsidered. The ambivalence toward his own better impulses that made him such an interesting hostile hippie—and the most thoughtful chronicler of youth’s cynical and optimistic polarities—has split into two easy pieces. There’s too much talk of the sun, peace, destiny, heaven, and a “pure soul,” and then there’s the ever-popular “try to hold to this heart a little longer.” On “With Every Light,” Corgan sings, “Throw away your four-leaf clover” in a footloose Nelson Eddy mode—and since when did he have one? On the other hand, there’s still plenty of broken glass, crashing down, dirty streets, “let me die,” knives aimed at hearts, and the ever-popular image-mad junkie mode. With just one exception—”The Imploding Voice” (the junkie ode) is fast and cheerily repetitive despite its spiders and crawling skin, like British Invasion Goth-metal—Corgan separates these aspects and casts them into musically consistent arrangements. For a band that traffics in paradox, the result is enervating to the music—and suspicious to the listener.
In between, Corgan builds his aural Lego mansions: atmospheric digital overlays that shimmer and menace, ring like trumpets or buzz like a hangover; tricky bass groundings; his own tongue-in-cheek guitar heroics; and that tireless, tiresome spitting whine, often heavily treated. His forte is density, weight, mass, but he can’t propel a song out of a wet paper bag. If the world needed any proof that the Pumpkins’ secret engine is drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, 1998’s sloggy Adore proved it: The unstable addict Chamberlin was out; the thick-headed drum machine was in. Chamberlin is back for Machina, all pumped up and ferocious. He kicks off “The Everlasting Gaze” with ticky cymbals, walloping the song into motion like a jockey whipping a horse, then working the poor beast into a lather with a mix of stoopid-drummer straight pounding and larky arena-rock fills. He ignores Corgan’s wafty vocals on “Raindrops + Sunshowers,” keeping up an elaborate full-throttle rhythm with corners so tricky they’re almost Latin.
Corgan can construct whole sonic cities in his sleep—an impressive feat, but by now something of an elaborate parlor trick. When they’re not in the service of actual tunes, Machina’s textures sound derivative in classic Pumpkins style—derivative of themselves, of course; Corgan wouldn’t have it any other way—and are as shapeless as a gorgeous piece of velvet before it becomes a dress. Corgan has often been charged with the sin of pretentiousness, which he is guilty of, but it isn’t quite a sin only because he knows when to justify pretension by epic sweep. Machina’s songs lack humor, perspective, and clarity, and despite their pomposity, nothing here approaches a David Lean-sized magnitude. And while he may still be the smartest man in rock, the best thing he did for Machina was rehire a bona fide genius. CP