The Smashing Pumpkins' final major label release, Machina: The Machines of God, is at once sad and strangely prophetic. Though it wasn't until after its release that lead Pumpkin Billy Corgan announced the band's planned break-up, the album is both a final bid for acceptance and a somber farewell. On the intentionally clamorous “Heavy Metal Machine,” Corgan seems to question the continued acclaim of peers like Kurt Cobain while his own band's last release, Adore, received mixed reviews and was a commercial disappointment (“If I were dead/Would my records sell?” he asks). He questions his own rock n' roll destiny and whether it's in his hands, all the while pleading: “Let me die for rock n' roll.” Though dressed as a simple love song, the U2-esque “This Time” finds Corgan singing with appropriate desperation: “I've got to sing my song while I still can.”
Machina begins with the frenetic pace of “The Everlasting Gaze” and “Raindrops and Sunshowers.” The latter continues the mythic narratives that the Pumpkins have become known for: “Force down the wings of God/To get your love with poem/Obscure reflections of my love.” The satisfying potential-hit “Stand Inside Your Love” is a beautifully enchanting pledge to devotion: “Don't fear me now/I will breathe for both of us.” At an ambitious 10 minutes long, the majestically epic “Glass and the Ghost Children” explores such simple yet universal themes as collective consciousness. While it borders on the pretentious, “Ghost Children” shifts moods often and features a dark piano interlude with a recording of Corgan (seemingly in a therapy session) questioning his intuition as the voice of God. Ultimately, the effect works, creating a chilling symphony of existentialism.
Tracks like “The Imploding Voice” and “The Sacred and Profane” recall the crunchy guitar sound of Gish and Siamese Dream, while the “The Crying Tree of Mercury” continues the industrial Goth-rock of Adore, but something is clearly missing from Machina. Gone are the lush arrangements of “Tonight, Tonight” and the pop sensibilities of “1979” (both from the soon-to-be-classic Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness). The Pumpkins still understand the craft of a good pop/rock song better than many new bands of late, but they seem to have gotten bogged down by grand visions and aspirations (not to mention constant attempts to prove themselves relevant). Rock has always been built on mindless Dionysian indulgence, but Corgan never seemed to fit the mold and he might just be too self-aware for his own good.
It seems the Pumpkins forced their own demise. Musical trends fluctuate, and rather than stick it out for a few years and continue to create music, they have thrown up their hands. In years to come, the public would have most certainly viewed them as revolutionaries who survived their own revolution. Instead, they've placed the final nail in the grunge-alternative coffin, and like Corgan sings on “This Time:” “As the curtain falls/We bid you all goodnight.”