To see how Billy Corgan has spent the best part of the last decade completely gutting the name of the Smashing Pumpkins has been genuinely depressing to see. It’s certainly not a new phenomenon, but for a band of their stature, who revolutionised alt-rock and grunge throughout the ‘90s with albums like Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness – the latter often considered among the best albums of all time, for the record – that’s usually the telltale sign of a band running way past their best-before date, something that albums like Oceania and Monuments To An Elegy would attest to. But, by some cosmic, divine miracle, 2018 has seen a resurgence for the Smashing Pumpkins brand in a way that hasn’t been seen in years, spurred on by the return of James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlin on guitar and drums respectively to rebuild images of that classic era. On top of that, the material has actually been good so far, and for this tenth album with the mealy-mouthed title of Shiny And Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun, there’s the most hype – and critically, hope – around a Smashing Pumpkins album in well over a decade.
The problem with that, though, is that when it doesn’t live up to those expectations, it’s ultimately branded a failure while its own strengths are simultaneously ignored for more fuel to perpetuate the hyperbole. In truth, Shiny And Oh So Bright… isn’t the great revival of the Smashing Pumpkins of old, but for as weak and watered-down as the previous albums to bear that name have been, to have something like this that’s at least a competent step in the right direction is so much better than more of the same. At least it’s easy to see where the growth might occur on the inevitable Vol. 2, if only because this feels far more stable in terms of simpler, punchier melodic compositions. It’s by far their shortest album to date, but that comes from the moves towards power-pop on Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts) or prioritising bigger hooks and a more standardised song structure on Solara and Seek And You Shall Destroy. What’s more, it never feels abortive or truncated, with tracks like Travels or With Sympathy lending a more contemplative deliberate pace to keep things on an even keel. It’s not always foolproof – opener Knights Of Malta still struggles to get things really going with the increased presence of sagging, weeping strings – but for the most part, Shiny And Oh So Bright… is perfectly capable of holding its own musically.
And yet, to some that mightn’t be enough, and it’s admittedly easy to see where that mindset comes from. Compared to the size and ambition of some of the Smashing Pumpkins’ previous works, this can feel a bit too inconsequential, particularly in all the lyrical assertions of the band no longer being the voice of the disenfranchised anymore, and have simply moved on to be another rock band, spoken without any disconcertment that could possibly bring some dramatic narrative. If the argument was to be made that Shiny And Oh So Bright was the Smashing Pumpkins becoming complacent, it would be hard to argue against; Corgan himself seems a much tamer vocalist this time around, and with so much of the classic lineup back and the draw that’s provided, the mindset of playing it safe is hard to dispute. But then again, that also means that Corgan’s madcap, frequently unworkable ideas have been mercifully pruned back, and it’s led to a much more immediate, listenable album because of it, and doing so without having to forgo a classically uncluttered production style (albeit one with a bit more modern polish). Taking the rough with the smooth in this vein is the best way to get some significant enjoyment from this album, and it does prove worth it in the end.
That said, the Smashing Pumpkins – especially this incarnation – can do markedly better than this as they’ve proven many times in the past, and if there was any discussion to be had about whether Shiny And Oh So Bright will end up in their pantheon of classics, even in years to come, it resoundingly will not. On the other hand though, it’s probably the most natural course correction this band could’ve taken, complete with some of their best songs in years and a focus on keeping things simple and thorough. At the end of the day, it’s hard to see any of this really growing or souring to any significant degree, but this is good regardless, and for a band like the Smashing Pumpkins who’ve been utterly floundering for as long as they have, that’s something to appreciate.
For fans of: Nirvana, Pixies, Everclear
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Shiny And Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun’ by Smashing Pumpkins is out now on Napalm Records.