While the Smashing Pumpkins’ first new album in seven years, Zeitgeist, addresses the political and social upheaval that has occurred in the world since 2000’s MACHINA: The Machines Of God, Billy Corgan and his band haven’t really captured the spirit of the time since the apex of grunge rock. As the old chestnut goes, “Never judge a book by its cover,” and as far as old chestnuts go, it’s a good one. After seeing Shepard Fairey’s cover art for Zeitgeist, I was hoping it might signal a comeback of American Idiot-sized proportions for one of the only bands that seemed capable of surviving the alt-rock movement. But Zeitgeist is premature in more than one way: Band reunions are always less than satisfying when one or more members of the original lineup don’t return for the ride (D’Arcy Wretzky and James Iha are both M.I.A.) and grunge is at least a few years away from a true renaissance (after all, today’s young bands have only recently finished mining metal, garage rock, and new wave, so jangly alt-rock is probably ahead in line).
Like both the mainstream media and Democratic leaders who kept their mouths shut or turned a blind eye to Bush’s criminal foreign policy in the wake of 9/11, most American music artists were slow to criticize the administration. To jump on the bandwagon now (like so many defected Republican senators up for reelection in ‘08) means you’ve got to have something novel to say…or, as Bush has proven time and time again, at least say what’s already been said in a way that emboldens your base. As it stands, Zeitgeist‘s political tunes are trite and uninspiring: opening track “Doomsday Clock” includes couplets like “There’s wages on this fear/Oh so clear” and an evocation of existential crisis Corgan can only express in obvious, elementary terms and literal references to Kafka. And repeating “Revolution!” over and over, as he does on the centerpiece “United States,” does not constitute a revolt. Much of the rest of Zeitgeist is filled with love songs, which, considering the caliber of the political gems on tap, should have been a good thing, but tracks like “Bleeding The Orchid” are stuffed with bleak, gothic imagery and often grammatically nonsensical lyrics—“Bullet With Butterfly Wings” this ain’t.
With the exception of just a few tracks, most notably “Neverlost,” Zeitgeist lacks the quieter pop songs of Siamese Dream, the beautiful orchestral moments of Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, and even the electronic experimentation of Adore. Instead, Zeitgeist is the Pumpkins’ most aggressively metal album to date. But heaps of guitars, vocal overdubs, and ridiculous effects don’t mask a lack of inventiveness or even plain ol’ quality songwriting. Musically, “Starz” is the most interesting song here, with Corgan’s guitars and Jimmy Chamberlin’s drums as big and bold as anything on Mellon Collie. It’s pretty well known that, even at the Pumpkins’ height, the other members of the band contributed very little creatively, so what’s the excuse here other than that Corgan was too busy fantasizing about his own resurrection to actually produce an album worthy of his band’s legacy?