Still Not Just Art in a Cage

When rock stars sing love songs to their radio, you know something's fucked. Billy Corgan does it four cuts into Machina/The Machines of God,an album unapologetically positioned as the Smashing Pumpkins' commercial comeback, and it's oddly intimate, like underwear skid marks: something we're simply not supposed to know. "Radio, please don't go," he pleads over a desperate alt-bubble hook that might as well belong to Third Eye Blind. Far less open-ended than most of Corgan's songbook, "I of the Mourning" clearly deals with the bandleader's troubled relationship with the media that uncharacteristically welcomed—then suddenly shut the door on—his shrill fuzzbox symphonics. "What is it you want to change?" he cries, as though he were a scorned lover finding himself replaced by younger, cuter, factory-processed meat.

Remember the time between Nirvana's breakthrough and Matchbox 20's arrival, when arty rock meant big business? Corgan was arguably the first star of his era to comprehend that the gravy train was running off the tracks, and while Hole and Marilyn Manson sucked up to radio (with his help and/or advice), the Pumpkins crafted their moody airplay kiss-off Adorebefore Beck, Trent, and Tori fell in line with theirs. Musos like these can't be counted on to keep generating the stuff guaranteed to shift megaunits, but they can still appeal to folks who don't give a shit about hearing their heroes alongside rock's latest Brand X hits. Like it or not, Smashing Pumpkins and Hole and NIN and all that dark goodness are now the new Cure: the stuff of cults.

Yet Machinaisn't a cult record: It's designed to recapture past glories, reclaim a safe middle space between Limp Bizkit and Godspeed You Black Emperor (the crass and the deliberately noncommercial), and of course repair Corgan's famously fragile ego. But Machina's not gonna do any of that, at least judging from how it slipped from #3 to #20 in its second charting week despite a current club tour, a rock-radio-friendly single ("Stand Inside Your Love"), and a stream of dishy news items. It's gonna tank and generate more tired rock-is-dead talk. Oh, well.

Melon Head and the infinite hoop skirts
photo: stroll untill you're hit
Melon Head and the infinite hoop skirts

Still, it's better than trend-conscious detractors will admit. Adorecame as close as bombast-crazed Corgan could get to chamber music, but its failure had more to do with substandard songs than restrained guitars and beat-box rhythms. Machinabrings back ousted drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, honorary fifth member-producer Flood, and those old rat-in-a-cage riffs. Despite Chamberlin rocking harder than ever with torrents of snare and cymbal fills and Flood's sweeping art-metal sonics matching the moody luster of prime-era Depeche Mode, the album's hit-hungry initial nine tracks (totaling 42 minutes, a generous LP's worth) feature Corgan's sweetest pop ever. That contrast between the band's crunchy exterior and soft creamy center is the Pumpkins' core identity, and here it's played for maximum melodrama.

Riding a prototype trash-metal chord change and breaking for a midsong a cappella rant, "The Everlasting Gaze" announces the return of classic Siamese Dream/Mellon Collieonslaught, but soon gives way to a heavenly bridge of buzzing My Bloody Valentine-meets-ELO six-string harmonics that prove just how pretty the Pumpkins can be even while kicking out the prog-grunge jams. With its nimble bass noodling and orgasmic blast arrangement, "Raindrops + Sunshowers" could become my favorite SP cut ever, and not only because it drops a lyrical Duran Duran quote: The swoopy-swoony chorus doesn't quit, and neither does Chamberlin's percussive assault. Although the fact that this simple, thundering love song hits what the Pumpkins have always aimed at a few years too late minimizes their achievement, it's a grand blue thing nevertheless.

The next seven tracks (even the jilted radio ditty) do exactly what they should—make you feel like taking a long self-pitying stroll in the rain until you're hit by lightning, a bus, pneumonia, or the enormity of your own runny-mascara shame. But the winning streak screeches to a halt with the interminable 10-minute, two-part wank-fest "Glass and the Ghost Children," which is interrupted halfway through by spoken sound bites of Corgan worrying about being a pedagogic megalomaniac. Subsequent tracks get strident ("Wound"), droney ("The Crying Tree of Mercury"), corny ("With Every Light"), even more droney ("Blue Skies Bring Tears"), then finally fast but ultimately forgettable ("Age of Innocence"). Like nearly every too-long Pumpkins opus, Machinasputters out, the last six songs each sounding as if they're gonna be the last one, until the benefits of the doubt you've been granting are nearly all revoked. Yet Machina's best are better crafted than the best on the Pumpkins' other behemoths, and catchier, too. Shame about the song titles.

 
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