For The Smashing Pumpkins, work since their reformation has been somehow less interesting than the stories which led to this work. The creation of 2007’s Zeitgeist, the reunification of drummer Chamberlain and front man Corgan, and then the boringly predictable breakup which later ensued – have been met by long standing fans with a yawn and a shrug. Indeed, the rousing proclamation by Corgan of the ‘death of the album’ oozed attention seeking, and it is not unfair to point out that Oceania, whilst forming an ‘album within an album’ of the Pumpkins ambitious 44-song project Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, does represent the Corgan backtracking on what was an attempt at a lofty, predictive statement. It turns out Pumpkins fans prefer a collection of songs, rather than one at a time, strangely.
The truth is, 07’s Zeitgeist, whilst not exactly inspired, has staying power. Corgan is hugely adept and at album-creation, and it seemed a shame for him to abandon the process. If you do look through the Pumpkin’s discography, each represents a new idea, a new musical function. The drawn-out process of Teargarden does achieve this also, but less clearly, less fluently, and Oceania does help to give the project a clearer message, a clearer framework, a clearer style.
Musically, the Pumpkins sound achieved here is arguable the most coherent since Machina. Stylistically, it represents a huge shift in emphasis. Fans of Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness may find Oceania blasphemous for its very lack of density. It is quite clear, and consciously so, that the use of space is in much sharper focus on this effort. It’s more modern, it’s adaptive. Jason Green was correct to point out though, that sometimes the perhaps subconscious yearning by Corgan to recreate the groundbreaking releases of the 90s descends into self-plagiarism. What is the beginning of opener Quasar but Cherub Rock; the chord-movement of The Celestials but Disarm? Etc.
New recruits Byrne, Fiorentino and Schroeder, forming ¾ of the outfit, do put in a sterling job. Byrne’s drumming is on point and sharp – it is no easy task to take up the position once held by Jimmy Chamberlain. There does indeed appear to be a broader diversity of writing influence within the tracks, retaining elements of classic Pumpkins grandeur, with pushes towards the type of minimalism which simply could not be found on most previous albums (a clear contrasting example would of course be Adore). A case in point? – The track Pale Horse never quite manages to ‘take off’, as it would usually be the route Corgan would go for; additional layers are not added save for some subtle and seamless sequestered harmonies. The three may have injected a youthfulness into Corgan’s dictatorship of the Pumpkins, but where this album lacks most especially is in its dull lyricism. “There’s a sun that shines,” Corgan points out to us, illuminatingly, on Panopticon. Billy then assures us that he’s, “Always on your side,” on One Diamond, One Heart. Repeatedly. Good to know. There’s quite a lot of this, and it would be tiresome to list anymore.
Certain reviews have called this some sort of ‘grandiose’ return of the Pumpkins, of Corgan, of the ‘Smashing Pumpkins’ brand. Some have even gone as far as to situate this hour of music as ‘groundbreaking’, or of, seriously, the ‘finest’ in over a decade – with even some Pink Floyd comparisons thrown in. This is a good album, which some impressive stylistic injections, and progressive musical evolution. Past that, though, it is no more than Pumpkins fan would expect. Released a decade ago, this maybe would have been a groundbreaking shift; released now, though, it appears more a fitting part of the zeitgeist; which is not Corgan’s usual occupation.