SMASHING PUMPKINS - MONUMENTS TO AN ELEGY (MARTHA'S MUSIC)
When people say he / she “could sing the phone book and it would be wonderful,” I become quite angry. For the people who say these things clearly place no value on the words contained within popular music. Slapping a label of disposability on lyrical content is an insult to the writer, no matter how beautiful the method of delivery. Unfortunately, and as much as I’d like to, I can’t entirely blame these people. Their intentional obliviousness is an evolved reflex against so many lyricists who have absolutely nothing to say. There’s only a certain number of times you can allow yourself to be fed shit before you turn your head away, like so many Ryan Goslings before you.
Billy Corgan isn’t a singer who can make the contents of the phone book sound wonderful, but the melody he would wrap around it would fit that description. Corgan’s songwriting skill lies in taking his creations to places you hoped they would go, then exceeding your expectations when they get there. The part that used to be called the middle 8 in ‘Today’ and 1979’ are two of the best ever committed to tape, wrenching you from the compositional structure to a place where the transmission of audio to ear is no longer a passive experience. The song is suddenly part of you, and you are invested in how it will end. For lack of a better description, you care.
But those songs are from albums released in 1993 and 1995, and there are those who would argue Mr. Corgan has been feeding us too much shit in the last 20 years for us to truly invest in his work anymore. I’m not one of those people, but if no one is listening, why not give them a reason to castigate themselves?
Corgan will never retire, whether under the blanket of the Pumpkins or otherwise. It’s a compulsion for him to write songs, and to retire would be to admit defeat. With nothing to rail against, he's just William Corgan. Even when his concept drowned its subjects, there were moments that clawed their way to the surface and gasped desperately for air. His failures are as addictive as his successes. It’s one of the reasons MACHINA is nearly always the album I go to when I want to listen to the Pumpkins. Look how much effort went into just the artwork. It’s so, so good. When the remastered, sell-your-house-level-expensive box set of that record arrives, it will be the first and only Pumpkins reissue I buy. It’s monumental in scope, airless in production and utterly oblivious of its unconscious pursuit of ridicule. Plus ‘Stand Inside Your Love’ and ‘Try, Try, Try’ are truly wonderful pop songs, daubed in glitter then preserved in amber. They will outlive you, and do not require your approval.
Teargarden by Kaleidyscope is a concept so unwieldy it makes MACHINA seem like Meet the Beatles. Dripfed individual songs that were each exactly one song too long, served up EPs that granted the extended portion of that categorisation new meaning and finally given an album whose title promised depths that could not possibly exist, you could be excused for not being totally ecstatic about this new set. Plus it’s called Monuments to an Elegy. Ugh.
Sophomoric titles aside, there's a real fuck you sense to this record. "I've still got it, see? Now leave me the hell alone." 'Tiberius' bastardises the opening to 'Today' with synth and an increase in BPM, and throws guitars labelled Classic Pumpkins towards the mixing desk. You're listening again. 'Monuments' is the best riff that Corgan's offered up since 'Dross,' while both 'One and All' and 'Being Beige' fit nicely on Mellon Collie. I know this because I've tried it. The guitar sound is a little too warm, but the sense of adventure make them a better fit there than, say, Siamese Dream. 'Drum and Fife' builds in a satisfying way that no other artist of the grunge generation could ever replicate. Even with cock-rock drum fills, 'Anaise!' manages to become something impressive.
But the lyrics, Billy. Oh, the lyrics:
"Never been kissed by a girl like you / all I wanna, wanna do / love me baby, love me true / ooh...Dorian / what have you done? / Dorian / as you run / a setting sun...I feel alright / I feel alright tonight / and everywhere I go is shining bright...Cherry blossom / this is goodbye / come here lately / and you'll fly."
While he may have been mocked in the past for scratching his face with anvil hands and coiling his tongue round a bumblebee mouth, vapidity is so much worse. These are intricately constructed songs, forsaking exploratory guitar solos and ill-advised experimentation for punch and memorability. The melodies are bright and emotional, sitting proudly in the mix and luring you back. The words piss on that effort from a huge height. He's obviously still aggrieved about a lot of things, so why not let that out in his records? When I listen to albums with lacklustre lyrics, I can't help but imagine the writing process that led to the final product. Did the writer sit and analyse the words put forward for each song's final form before finally deciding that "yes, this is the absolute best I can do. I've achieved everything I set out to say with this song?" Or did they cast it aside with a screw it and move onto pursuits they consider more enjoyable / important? The latter is the conclusion at which I usually arrive, and do so again here. Its worth as a record is undeniable (and not just that, but as a real, honest-to-god Smashing Pumpkins record), but if you're one of those lucky people who are prone to intentional obliviousness, you'll be a lot happier. But you lot probably are anyway, right?