What's worse? A new Smashing Pumpkins album that provokes and experiments but ultimately comes up short, or a new Smashing Pumpkins album that just comes up short? With Billy Corgan's much-trounced last disc, 1998's Adore, the gifted, megalomaniacal songwriter wrestled with his mother's death, the firing of his drummer, and his rock band's place in the coming industrial-electronica storm. Underrated, Adore saw Corgan fearlessly challenging himself, and if some moments failed, they failed with all guns blazing. The Smashing Pumpkins seemed unsure of their next step, but they were determined to keep moving forward.
Not anymore. From the new album's pretentious title to its first single to its overall design, MACHINA/The Machines of God represents a rehashing of old formulas. Except for the return of drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and a few fuzz-heavy guitar songs, Corgan doesn't have much new to offer his fans, and maybe that's the point. Whether desperate for a big-sales rebound or nostalgic for earlier, simpler times, Baldy has opted to stick to past strengths on MACHINA that are considerable, but these don't keep the album from becoming a disheartening experience.
The lead single and album opener, "The Everlasting Gaze," tells the tale. Instead of the mopey techno of Adore, the song hearkens back to the band's harder, streamlined efforts of the Siamese Dream era. But the result only sounds familiar and generic, while Corgan's continuing infatuation with his stop-the-music a cappella rants couldn't be more irritating. Though not as ghastly as "The End Is the Beginning Is the End" from the Batman & Robin soundtrack (the band's nadir), the lackluster ordinariness of "The Everlasting Gaze" prepares you for the diminished returns yet to come.
Lyrically, Corgan has nothing interesting to add about his tired hang-ups: the gigantic God complex; the fascination with death; the concerns with celebrity. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness found Corgan trying out truly poetic romantic imagery, and Adore had a lovely confessional honesty. In its place, we now get lame wordplay ("In Detroit/With the Nashville tears") and a dearth of the emotional, heartfelt moments Corgan used to wring out of even the slightest of songs. Maybe he's finally settled into a happy, loving relationship (the undoing of many a good songwriter), or maybe he's not as interested in embracing new styles, but MACHINA's tentative, flaccid delivery will only inspire detractors to write the Pumpkins off and cause supporters to worry about what happened to Corgan's adventurous spirit.
The album still contains some worthwhile moments. "Try, Try, Try" and "I of the Mourning" have the same sweet sound that buoyed "1979." Bolstered by Chamberlin's volcanic drums, "Heavy Metal Machine" and "The Imploding Voice" incorporate a more aggressive rock approach to good effect. But too much of MACHINA reminds you of Pumpkins songs you already know and love. Back in '95, the worst you could say about Corgan was that his huge ambitions caused him to push too hard; he spread his talent over too many songs to the point of creative exhaustion. With the status quo MACHINA, however, he's hardly pushing at all. He'd never admit it, but you can't escape the rotting stench of self-satisfied professionalism. "If I were dead," he sings, "would my records sell/Could you even tell/It is just as well?" At the rate things are going, Corgan might not have to wait until the great beyond to find out. Tim Grierson