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The Boston Phoenix Rotting Pumpkins

Why Billy can't rock

By Alex Pappademas

MARCH 6, 2000:  The official line on Smashing Pumpkins' sixth album, Machina/The Machines of God (Virgin), is that it's Billy Corgan and company's "Return to Rock." Their last CD, Adore, had Ingmar Bergmanesque cover photos, lyrics that abandoned sweeping pretentiousness in favor of doleful pretentiousness, and drum machines. And no matter what the Reverend Run says, everybody knows drum machines don't rock, and that replacing drug-problematic human drummer Jimmy Chamberlain with programmed boom baps is tantamount to funneling American jobs to dirty foreigners. As a result, Chamberlain has been reinstated on Machina, and he pounds the kit like a guy who's really glad to be employed. He plays "aggressive" beats behind the "scorching" guitars and the more-"propulsive"-than-usual bass while Corgan whines "impassioned" queries to God and stuff. And none of it saves this mostly charmless album from being a turkey with Butterball wings.

Love 'em or hate 'em, the Pumpkins have never lacked conviction before -- Billy Corgan used to say stuff like "We'll crucify the insincere tonight!" and really mean it, like crusading anti-irony essayist Jedediah Purdy (For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today) having blood in his eye for (notably arch Pumpkins dissers) Pavement. Machina is the first album where that sense of mission eludes them. Instead its songs rattle back and forth between faded-celeb cynicism and desperate ass kissing. "I of the Mourning" tears itself up trying to go both ways at once. Its "Radio/Please don't go" refrain begs for love from alterna-rock program directors while the chiming guitars strive hard to go pop (the line about the dust on Billy's guitar reminds me a little bit of a true immortal pop song, the Murmurs' "You Suck," but that's about it). Corgan's fear of irrelevance here could stink up a room; he sings about hiding behind Caller ID and closed curtains even though "no one's out there." When his frustration crests, he gnashes "Radi-OWW, radi-OWW/What is it you want to change?", and it comes off as an I-hate-you-so-much-right-now to the stations that won't add his single. Intriguingly schizoid, I guess, but it's still selfish kicking and screaming.

Chuck D could marshal the moral authority to get mad at radio because the suckas never played him. Michael Stipe could do it because there's never any good public-affairs programming on during drive time. Corgan's just incensed because Korn and Britney invented funner and more ruthless forms of youth-market pandering and carved up his target market, Balkan-style, after Adore tried to get all somber and everybody yawned. He's mad at the kids for going away and disgusted with himself for wanting them back so badly.

Perhaps realizing that "Mourning" puts too fine a point on it, Corgan proceeds to oblige radio with some of his laziest writing ever. There's a silly hey-we're-just-a-touring-rock-band number that mentions "Memphis trains" (in the same sentence as "Dee-troit"; I guess it's a short tour) and "Sunshower," a song about trying to walk between the raindrops (nowhere near as good as Travis's song on the same topic, let alone Tom Waits's). There's "You and me, meant to be" rhyming with "It's destiny, pure lunacy" (to which Barry White would respond, "It's ecstasy when you lay down next to me"). And there are whiny-boyfriend plaints, New Radicals tributes, songs about how "Only love will win" (does the guy who wrote "You will always be my whore" really believe that?).

Corgan seems almost too willing to surrender his gravitas -- which was the one thing that made me like the jerk in the first place. The only big art-rock set piece is "Glass and the Ghost Children," which you can tell is supposed to be all foreboding because it rips off UNKLE's "Rabbit in your Headlights" and the lyrics evoke straight-to-cable Goth-noir crud like Dark City. The part about the girl who "hears glass calling" and about how glass is "a thousand fractures" waiting to happen reminds me of an essay that ran a couple months ago in the Oxford American by a young writer so phobic about glass's infinite potential for breakage that he eats only off paper plates. "Ghost Children" isn't nearly as good, plus I think it's actually about heroin, or Miss Muffet. The bridge, though, gets full points for audacious egotism: in a warped tape snippet, Billy tells a journalist (or therapist) that he's always believed God was speaking through him but now he's not sure, and maybe that's the cause of all the negativity against him. I kept expecting him to go Puff Daddy paranoid on us and start ranting about "the haters."

This isn't the first Pumpkins album to struggle with conflicts of intention. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995), Corgan's divorce double album (I assume) and the band's crowning achievement (if you programmed your CD player correctly), took emotions that wanted to be worked through in private and projected them on a mile-high screen, converting personal shit into arena-size gestures. On Machina, the only tension is "Where to?" pulling against "Why bother?", and the whole structure goes to pieces.


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