Smashing Pumpkins have shed whatever indie status they might have had in the 1990s: Three different versions of Zeitgeist are being mass-marketed through retailers.
With hits such as "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" and "Tonight, Tonight," Smashing Pumpkins was one of the biggest alternative rock success stories of the 1990s. The band broke up in 2000, but in June 2005, lead singer Billy Corgan took out a full page ad in the Chicago Tribune announcing that he wanted to revive it. "I want my band back," he said, "and my songs, and my dreams."
Of the original Smashing Pumpkins, only drummer Jimmy Chamberlin heeded Corgan's call. But the Pumpkins were always mostly about Corgan, who not only fronted the band but was also its main songwriter and guitarist. His nasal, keening voice and the clouds of overdubbed guitars are what most identify the band's sound. On the new record, Zeitgeist, those elements are back in spades.
Its heavy, distorted guitars helped classify the Smashing Pumpkins as an alt-rock band at the right time in the early '90s. In fact, the precision and bombast of the Pumpkins always borrowed a good deal from progressive rock and heavy metal, along with nods to goth rock, '80s synth rock and shoegazers.
The Pumpkins never had the indie-rock cred of alt-rock rivals Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Underscoring that point, three slightly different versions of Zeitgeist are being mass-marketed through Best Buy, Target and iTunes. So if you want all the band's new songs, you'll have to hit two big-box retailers and the Web, but you can skip your local indie record store.
Zeitgeist is a German term that refers to encapsulating the important qualities of the time. The blood-red album cover, depicting a slowly drowning Statue of Liberty, might illustrate how Corgan would define the current zeitgeist. The few lyrics you'll be able to make out above the guitar drone include vague references to the apocalypse and doomsday and revolution and the need for love.
Then again, Corgan's songs have always been grandiose but unspecific, just like the wash of distorted guitars that powers them. Still, there is definitely commercial pop power in some of the album's big-arena rock choruses, and Corgan's low-key vocal delivery plays nicely off the hard rock arrangements.
While this latest incarnation of the band may not include all the original members, if you were a Smashing Pumpkins fan 10-plus years ago and they still hold a place in your heart, this new album should definitely be added to your collection. But if they never did much for you in the first place, or if you feel like you've moved on, there's nothing much new here to change your mind.