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Smashing Pumpkins, ‘Oceania’ – Album Review

The Smashing Pumpkins
EMI

So the Smashing Pumpkins have become a prog rock band. Who could have known 20 years ago that Billy Corgan’s nasal sneer would float over the guitars of ‘The Celestials’ (yes, that’s the actual name of one of these songs), or that the Chicago band would release an album-within-an-album as their ninth release. ‘Oceania’ is a long player that longs for cosmic grandeur — and at times reaches those stratospheric ambitions.

In an interview with Stereogum, Corgan said the present album is the band’s best effort since your big sister picked up ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ as the mall back in 1995. The Pumpkins (read: Corgan) have always had gigantic musical ambitions, as evidenced by the No. 1 album ages ago, and they draw upon a vastness of punk, psychedelic, prog and classic rock, all with heavy guitar and deep-thinking lyrics. The band’s best album in years soars in swirls of ephemeral chords, each track fading into the next as a single flowing suite.

Reportedly inspired by the Tarot, the album begins with ‘Quasar’ and its cosmic roll call of God, Krishna and Yahweh, among other deities. While not going to far as referencing shakras or Mayan calendar resets, Corgan’s gone toward the far end of esoterica and New Age. In short, he spends a good chunk of the album talking about ‘his love.’ Luckily for the more practical among us, he also spends a lot of time shredding frets. ‘Panoptican’ summons the tie-dyed days of Zwan, and the album slows its step in ‘The Celestials,’ where aquatic synths lap against the shore of Corgan’s guitar, shifting in tone and contrast, building into a grunge crunch. ‘Violet Rays’ finds the frontman romantic and insecure, asking after phantom lovers amid soft organs. That’s the prevailing aesthetic here: interstellar instrumentals and introspective lyrics that are breezy compared to the highbrow nihilism of earlier Pumpkins records: ‘My Love Is Winter’ is as predictably awesome at the title suggests (same case with ‘One Diamond, One Heart’).

‘Oceania’ is appropriately replete with tidal rhapsodics, be it the soothing ‘Pinwheels’ or the searching sprawl of the nine-minute title track. The high-water mark is the unassuming ‘Pale Horse,’ a swaying, gentle sunset of a ballad, showcasing Corgan’s ability to build a cohesive, lean pop song, while ‘The Chimera’ is so driving and fun that you don’t mind Corgan rhyming “stranger” with “danger” and prattling on about how all you need is love. ‘Glissandra’ is more grounded, but also more forgettable.

The riffs of the stargazing, pining, sexual,‘Inkless’ cut as hard any of the band’s ‘90s output, and Corgan’s call to a “faith in a love unseen” orients the album to the band’s current penchant for psychedelia. Album closer ‘Wildflower’ floats with spaced-out synths and urgent strings, an appropriate soundtrack to a sci-fi romance or planetarium laser light show.

That an album can be so silly and so serious is enchanting. For lack of a better term, ‘Oceania’ is a soundscape, something to drift along with on a long summer of the cosmos. What a long, strange journey it’s been, Billy.

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