The stakes are pretty high for Billy Corgan to reclaim the musical high ground the Smashing Pumpkins once enjoyed before he reunited the group (he’s now the only original member) for the uninspired 2007 comeback, Zeitgeist.
He doesn’t always hit the mark on Oceania, but damnit, at least he’s trying.
The roaring, psychedelic “Quasar” and its backwards guitar solos, drones and propulsive rhythms, is an immediate highlight; with something this good, the only downside is that there aren’t any others like it on the rest of the album.
A number of Oceania’s 13 tracks suffer from radio-ready, mid-tempo, middle-aged, alternative rock syndrome, while lacking hooks strong enough to make them more than average. “My Love is Winter,” “The Chimera,” “Glissandra,” and the synth arpeggio-driven “One Diamond, One Heart” don’t fare so well in that regard.
“The Celestials” borders on this territory at times, but is bolstered by a surging chorus (and that classic SP buzzsaw guitar sound) that almost makes you look the other way when Corgan sings “I’m gonna love you 101 percent.” “Violet Rays” is a fine minor-key ballad, even if it doesn’t fully live up to the prog promises of the symphonic guitar and synth lines of its first minute. “Pinwheels” charges along on a spirited synth figure for two minutes before it becomes little more than a pleasant-enough strummy ballad with a few emotive reach-for-the-stars moments.
Elsewhere, songs are haunted by the could-have-beens: “Inkless” isn’t terrible – the main riff even recalls that of the classic “Hummer” – but it lacks a strong enough vocal performance (I long for Corgan’s younger, prettier voice).
But the album’s other highlights certainly help elevate it though; the nine-minute title track begins with an eerie keyboard riff and journeys through several expansive sections, concluding with propulsive drums, echoed guitar solos and Mellotron. The haunting, somber “Pale Horse” is one of the album’s best ballads, and the vast, drifting elegy, “Wildflower,” is a lovely way to bring things to a close.
Corgan and his new band do an admirable job here as a whole, and while Oceania is way more likeable than most of what nu-Smashing Pumpkins has released thus far, it’s still a bit underwhelming. But if this ultimately ends up as the first step toward a full creative revitalization, it’s at least a good start.