Doesn’t really recapture the Smashing Pumpkins’ former glory.
This album won’t be enough to satisfy its creator. Then again, nothing the Smashing Pumpkins have ever done will satisfy Billy Corgan. The ever-present mastermind behind SP seems to be locked in a perpetual struggle between making the kind of music he’s the best at creating and making the kind of music that will fulfill his rock star ambitions. For every moment of genius in the Smashing Pumpkins catalog, there are five over-ambitious missteps at angsty arena-rock. Even now, when he’s arguably achieved the sort of rock-star status he always wanted (albeit in a pop environment where that means very little), he seems to keep striving for that sweeping ubiquity at the expense of his particular gifts as a songwriter. Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 doesn’t change any of that, even with the reintroduction of Pumpkins original James Iha. Corgan’s still fighting that internal war, and the result is an album that is occasionally interesting and enjoyable when it isn’t shooting itself in the foot.
Iha’s return and the recent tour celebrating the band’s 30th anniversary set a bit of an unfair expectation for Shiny and Oh So Bright. Essentially, there’s a large subset of Pumpkins fans that would likely want the band to return to the sound of their mid-‘90s glory days, something that Corgan has been vocally reluctant about doing. That desire further flies in the face of what Corgan has been doing with SP since their 2007 revival. Each new record seemed to be an attempt by Corgan to elevate his music beyond its relatively humble alt-rock beginnings to a majestic, complex prog-rock ideal. There are certainly elements of that on Shiny and Oh So Bright (the fact that it’s the first part of a series of LPs is a pretty big giveaway), but what’s refreshing this time around is the relative brevity of the album. What bogged down previous efforts like Oceania and Monuments to an Elegy was how they struggled to contain every manic idea in Corgan’s head. By contrast Shiny and Oh So Bright clocks in at over a half-hour with eight songs that rarely go past the five-minute mark. Each song feels essential to the overarching mood that Corgan is trying to set here, and none of them overstay their welcome in the slightest. Considering how Corgan’s indulgence hampered the Pumpkins over the years, the sight of him exercising a bit of restraint is both surprising and welcome.
Unfortunately, while Shiny and Oh So Bright avoids sounding overly expansive and self-indulgent, it does suffer from a distinct lack of cohesion. To be fair, this has sort of been a problem for Smashing Pumpkins since Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness split its time between being a weird pop album and a boneheaded alt-metal jam. That dichotomy remains on Shiny and Oh So Bright, just on a smaller scale. The album begins with arguably its strangest track, “Knights of Malta,” which appears to be an odd marriage of modern arena rock and orchestral pop, complete with a broad chorus and gospel choir backing Corgan up. Depending on your particular Pumpkins preference, it could either be the dumbest song Corgan has ever written or the most interesting part of the album, but what comes after is essentially Pumpkins-by-numbers. There are mid-tempo alt-pop songs that slowly build to a climax and show off Corgan’s incredible knack for melody (“Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts),” “Alienation”) and there are hard-hitting rock songs that the band could never convincingly pull off in the first place (“Marchin’ On,” “Solara”), and never shall the twain meet. The result is an album that feels somewhat slapped together as opposed to a cohesive piece, and it’s made worse by the fact that the harder songs just do not work at all. When they pop up, it feels as if the album itself has been put on hold so that Corgan and Iha can play a few sick guitar solos while Jimmy Chamberlin pounds on every drum he has. Again, these problems aren’t exclusive to Shiny and Oh So Bright, but that doesn’t make their reoccurrence any less frustrating.
To answer the burning question, Shiny and Oh So Bright doesn’t really recapture the Smashing Pumpkins’ former glory, but it is a step in the right direction for the band. After a few years of the moniker serving as a marketing tool for Billy Corgan’s most overambitious ideas, the Smashing Pumpkins feel like a proper band again. Fans might be disappointed by the relative brevity of the album, but about half of the songs here are worthy additions to the band’s immense catalog of songs, even as the album as a whole is an uneven listen. Who knows how the band will follow this up, but for the first time in a while, it’s possible to be excited (however cautiously) about a new Smashing Pumpkins album.