Smashing Pumpkins’ – or Billy Corgan’s, however you want to put it – newest album, Monuments to an Elegy is the next part in the drawn out Teargarden by Kaleidyscope saga. Since 2009, Corgan has been releasing individual songs and entire albums under this theme, and he aims to conclude it next year with the next Pumpkins disc, Day for Night. All of the music under the Teargarden banner has been marked by Billy’s heavy experimentation with synthesizers and flowery subject matter, which obviously makes this material a very far cry from his “the world is a vampire” days. At times, though, he’s touched upon the Pumpkins’ former glory with it, most consistently on 2012’s Oceania (which balanced the heavy synth with heaping slabs of the band’s trademark fuzz).
However, Monuments to an Elegy comes up a lot shorter than it’s predecessor, both literally and figuratively. It’s run time is barely longer than that of most EPs, clocking in at 33 minutes with 9 songs. That means there’s no grand ‘Silverfuck’ or ‘Thru the Eyes of Ruby’ style epics here, or even the exploratory ‘Oceania’; the songs are short and sweet with predictable verse-chorus-verse structures. Figuratively, Monuments also finds Corgan dipping back into the synth-as-a-lead-instrument style that defined the early songs in the Teargarden cycle, for the worst. Almost all of the nine tracks here are either lead by, or feature prominent synth use – which would be all well and good, if most of them didn’t sound straight off of a New Age easy-listening CD. It comes off as painfully cheesy in the most un-ironic of ways, and it isn’t helped by Corgan’s absolutely dreadful lyrics. Besides clunkers like “Never been kissed by a girl like you/All I wanna, I wanna do/Love me baby, love me true/Oooh” and “alright alright/everywhere I go is shining bright”, you could literally die from alcohol poisoning if you drank every time he mentioned some variation of the word ‘love’ or ‘lover’.
But Corgan’s songwriting is so strong that, every once in a while, it does overpower even his most misguided tendencies. “One and All (We Are)” feels and sounds like a cut off of Mellon Collie, partly because it actually has roots in unfinished the Mellon Collie-era outtake ‘The Viper’. Grinding along with thick buzzsaw guitars and an angry inflection Corgan’s voice hasn’t held in years (and completely free of the cursed mini Moog), it’s a true dyed-in-the-wool Pumpkins song that reminds us of what he was once capable of. The prog-tinged ‘Tiberius’ manages the balance Oceania struck by successfully mixing a bright synth line with huge chugging chords, segueing into a heavier breakdown and back with ease. And the album’s lead single, ‘Being Beige’, has grown on me by leaps and bounds, bringing with it an Adore-influenced sound and gentle pop melodies.
I don’t fault Corgan for trying to explore new sounds and territories with his music, but he’s been mining this Synthing Pumpkins sound for five years now, and it’s seriously both wearing out its welcome and hurting his songs. The man who followed up one of the biggest double albums in music history with an understated gothic pop record is stuck in a rut, despite all of his grandstanding to the contrary. Monuments sounds deeply confused and flawed, jumping back and forth between guitar-driven rockers and new-agey synth and lyrics, rarely ever congealing into something cohesive. Ever since Corgan reformed the Pumpkins in 2006, he’s been struggling to find a sound for them that’s both relevant and in line with their past, and for all this trouble, he’s lost sight of what really matters – good songs. It’s a shame to see one of the ’90s greatest songwriters so mired in mediocrity, but at least at the end of the day we still wind up with a great song every now and then. That’s probably all we can ask for anymore.
Key Tracks: One and All (We Are), Tiberius, Being Beige