William Patrick Corgan – Ogilala [2017]

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Things haven’t been too great for Billy Corgan the past few years. The Smashing Pumpkins auteur has found himself embroiled in a number of embarrassing spectacles and creative flunks, and has seemed to be lost for years now. The proof of that came most strikingly with his 2014 release under the Pumpkins banner, Monuments to an Elegy. This was an album that showcased a musician stuck between giving his fans the sound they wanted, yet who was also desperately trying to shoehorn his current musical ambitions into. The result was a strange amalgamation of classic Pumpkins guitarwork, fused with puzzling new age synths and lyrics that would be more apt coming from a 12-year-old boy than a 46-year-old man. Suffice to say, when he announced that he would be releasing a new solo album after a 12-year gap, I had virtually nonexistent expectations – this was a man who was lying to himself musically for years and seemed completely without a rudder, what would change now?

What’s changed is immediately apparent from the first piano chords of “Zowie”, the album’s first track. Here, Corgan has stripped away everything but the bare necessities, opting for something more akin to a singer-songwriter approach than the in-your-face maximalism that was the Pumpkins’ bread and butter for so long. This track (and the album at large) is carried solely by Corgan’s gentle, melancholy piano strains and a restrained, refined vocal performance. Where he once might have layered three or four tracks of vocals on any given song, he has nothing to hide behind here – his voice is raw and exposed, perhaps putting greater pressure on himself to truly deliver. And where his voice was once full of grit, rage, snark, and sneer, on Ogilala the overriding emotion is love, exploration, acceptance, and hope. He’s no longer belting out his pain towards anyone who will listen: instead, he sounds at peace, writing these songs as much for himself as for anyone else.

However, sometimes this bare-bones approach shoots the album in the foot. While there’s nothing as outright clunky or cringe-worthy as “Run2Me” or “Anaise!”, at times it feels fairly one dimensional, with one song flowing into the next without much to differentiate it. There ARE a few moments that break up the flow and add color to the proceedings, like the yearning strings behind Corgan’s earnest vocals on “Aeronaut”. And then there’s James Iha’s shocking turn on guitar for the track “Processional”, marking the first time the pair have recorded music together since 2000’s Machina. But overall, Ogilala’s palette could have used a little expanding, as several of these songs feel more underwritten than stripped down.

But despite Ogilala’s faults, this album represents a marked return to form for a musician that has been lost for a long while now, and it presents perhaps his most honest and humble songwriting in his entire career (or at the very least, this second stage of it). He is no longer grappling with what side of himself to present to the world: It is just William Patrick Corgan, for better and for worse – stripped of anger and overwrought ambition, more at peace with himself than ever before, and making music that seems to truly strike a chord inside himself. It’s a step in the right direction, and for the first time since the Pumpkins reformed in 2005, it feels like the man is genuinely inspired. Ogilala might be more quiet, meditative, and sedate than any of his prior work, but in this case, that’s a good thing.

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Thom Yorke – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes (2014)

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Mr. Yorke has been a pretty busy man these last few years. Radiohead released and toured their eighth studio album, The King of Limbs in 2011, and he then defected to supergroup Atoms for Peace to create their debut, Amok. Now, eight full years after The Eraser, Yorke has delivered his second solo album with Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes.

Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes won’t surprise anyone who’s been following these recent releases, as it provides yet another variation on Yorke’s recent infatuation with densely layered electronic beats and rhythms. However, what sets it apart is that it is a true solo effort, and as such, it’s much more pared down. Aside from programming by Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood on “Guess Again!” and production assistance from longtime collaborator Nigel Godrich, just about everything on this record is Yorke’s work.

The result is a spare, melancholic ride through paranoid electronic soundscapes and melancholy beats. The album opens with the tight, neurotic “A Brain in a Bottle”, with rattles along with a pulsing bass line and warbly retro synths. “Guess Again!” provides echoes of Aphex Twin, with Yorke’s voice easily floating in and out, sounding as beleaguered as ever. Surprisingly, one of the most down-tempo and spare songs is one of the strongest, that being the haunting “Interference”. Yorke’s restrained and defeated voice details the slow death of a relationship, and the skeletal music emphasizes the hopelessness of it all. Speaking of Yorke’s voice, he’s had a penchant for mostly staying in his falsetto range on his past few releases, but Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes finally finds him once again striking a balance between his regular voice and his falsetto. Nowhere is this more prominent than on “The Mother Lode”, which finds him gliding back and forth between registers to great effect, and making it one of the most memorable tracks here.

Though as with The King of Limbs, length works against the album’s favor, especially in light of “There Is No Ice (For My Drink)”. The aforementioned song is a marathon 7 minutes of largely vocal-less ambience, built around a repetitive beat that never truly evolves or gets expanded upon, choosing instead to simply exist in it’s own little bubble. One weak track can sink an album of such short length, especially when it’s already a slow, introspective work to begin with. It doesn’t manage to kill the entire album, but it certainly destroys the momentum that the first half builds, and the affair doesn’t truly recover until the closer, “Nose Grows Some”.

However, “Nose Grows Some” is worth the journey alone. On par with Radiohead’s best songs, it’s a beautiful track that floats along with synth lines that sound hopeful, yet restrained and somehow nervous. Yorke drenches his voice with reverb here, filling the empty space created by the simple beat. It’s a song that feels like it could go on forever and you wouldn’t mind (on the vinyl release, it actually does go on forever, thanks to the looped groove on the disc). It’s moments and songs like these that make Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes well worth exploring.

All praise aside, I’m not sure how Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes holds up. On my first few listens I was completely enthralled and lost in the atmosphere of it, but as I’ve listened further and the newness wore off, I’ve found myself more ambivalent towards it. Yorke isn’t really offering anything he hasn’t done before here in one band or another, and he’s not doing it exceptionally enough to justify it. That’s not to say it’s a bad effort by any means, though. While many artists out there have explored this style of electronic music better, there’s something unique about the way Yorke pairs his fascinating sense of melody with the music he’s created. For that alone, it’s always worth listening to and exploring his newest work, even if it’s no longer as groundbreaking as Kid A.

Key Tracks: The Mother Lode, Interference, Nose Grows Some