While the Smashing Pumpkins have never really stopped existing for any extended period after Billy Corgan initially broke up the band in 2000, the act has featured a revolving cast for much of the past decade. Here, we get a mostly complete reunion of the original group, with Corgan again joined by versatile and powerhouse drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and commanding albeit textured guitarist James Iha. Guitarist Jeff Schroeder rounds out a lineup that remains estranged from original bassist D’arcy Wretzky. (Iha handles most of the album’s bass duties.)
A monumental 90s band, the Smashing Pumpkins of late have released a wildly mixed output, often emphasizing keyboards as much as guitars and, with few exceptions (see 2012’s Oceania), ostensibly doing away with larger-than-life, shoot-for-the-moon arrangements. It is a band whose influence has seemingly outrun its current aural impact, with the latter present in everything from the guitar-techno revelry of Grimes to the prog-meets-shoegaze of upstarts Starcrawler.
Shiny and Oh So Bright doesn’t necessarily change the narrative. Its eight songs, encompassing about 30 minutes, remain relatively slight. They echo earlier works such as “1979” but also see the band navigate a rock space where the likes of the Killers and Imagine Dragons are just as likely to draw an arena-sized audience. The record occasionally feels like a batch of Smashing Pumpkins B-sides, where orchestral accoutrements are accessories rather than necessities, and technicolor guitar shading gets replaced with mid-tempo plodding. Smashing Pumpkins keystones abound—the pace shifts of the Pixies, the melodic desires of Cheap Trick—but Corgan’s crew was never less than overly confident and Shiny and Oh So Bright feels tentative.
In recent years, we’ve watched Billy Corgan’s life unfold as a kind of reality show. The outspoken artist, who relishes stirring up controversy, frames his public persona as if he inhabits a starring role, often telling interviewers he doesn’t believe half the crazy things he says. So who is the real Corgan? The one smiling on the covers of cat-friendly magazines, or the one looking dour at Disneyland? Or maybe it’s the one appearing on the talk show of conspirator Alex Jones?
His lyrics on Shiny and Oh So Bright—vaguely poetic, slightly spiritual, and tinged with anger—don’t provide answers, but they do present a lovably aging Grinch. A slightly confrontational theme emerges as the album unfolds. “It’s with sympathy that I gift you to me,” Corgan sings at one point. And elsewhere, he seems disgusted with his audience, singing, “Speculation! Get yourself together.” The know-it-all, egotistical brat that is Ben Stiller in Greenberg springs to mind. Like Corgan throughout Shiny and Oh So Bright, Stiller’s character proves to be a softie when it comes to love. After all, when the going gets tough, Corgan promises “I’ve a starship you can use.”
Shiny and Oh So Bright goes down relatively easy—a pleasant if innocuous listen. Working again with famed producer Rick Rubin, the man behind the boards for the Smashing Pumpkins’ still-underrated dreamy dreariness on 1998’s Adore, the music certainly sounds terrific. The strings on “Knights of Malta,” provided by the rock-influenced orchestral ensemble the Section Quartet, provide a lovely counter to leader Billy Corgan’s trademark upper-register tartness. The Motorik rhythm on “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)” comes across as irresistibly propulsive, and when the band flashes guitar muscle on “Solara,” it’s clear the group can still rage. Only everything appears slightly constrained. The song attempts to switch into a higher gear—drummer Jimmy Chamberlin does his part with a spazzy turn near the end—but it ultimately settles for air-guitar riffage rather than Smashing Pumpkins-like shifts in dynamics and tone.
Of course, no one should expect Siamese Dream II. The Smashing Pumpkins in 2018 are an easy target, especially when the act’s interpersonal drama goes public. Plus, the group’s recent arena tour largely represented what Corgan always pledged to avoid: a nostalgia-based reunion trek. If the band’s brand is no longer as potent as it once was, it can be argued Corgan helped dilute it by way of the self-indulgent multi-year project Teargarden by Kaleidyscope and erratic, contradictory interviews.
Yet while Shiny and Oh So Bright falls short of a peak return to form, it’s far from a train wreck. It contains a few forgettable moments—the borderline rock ballad of “Travels” feels part Smashing Pumpkins, part Goo Goo Dolls, and “Alienation” symbolizes outdated grunge angst—but the signs of life outweigh any dead zones. Besides, even if one doesn’t give the Smashing Pumpkins a pass for the fact that Corgan, Chamberlin, and James Iha haven’t played together for more than 15 years, the slick comfort of “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)” and surprisingly bluesy hard rock of “Marchin’ On” cannot be denied. (You also may wonder what Shiny and Oh So Bright would have been like if the band recorded it after the tour—coming at the material road-tested and battle-worn instead of still learning its way.)
Shiny and Oh So Bright also still manages to feel like an event, at least when it comes to the vinyl packaging. A handsome, hefty, and graphically attractive gatefold sleeve holds the vinyl and contains a deluxe-worthy 16-page booklet. The album cover’s futuristic, Roman sculpture-inspired art continues inside the insert, with each Smashing Pumpkin member’s face drawn to resemble a stone figure. Each song also gets a full page with legible lyrics. So say what you want about Corgan. He clearly views music as sacred—and worthy of meaningful visual accompaniment.
Too bad, then, several songs largely lack the sonic depth of the Smashing Pumpkins’ finer efforts. Particularly given the midrange heft and front-and-center vocals conveyed by the LP, which would sonically rate even higher if not for occasional barriers preventing Chamberlin’s drumming from fully exploding. Captured at Rubin’s Shangri La Studios in Malibu, California, the recording nonetheless has room to breathe—as if waiting for Corgan and company to start adding layers. And only on the opening moments of each side did I hear any betrayal of the LP’s otherwise flat and quiet qualities.
Last chance to change your mind...