During my misspent youth, I obsessed over so-called “alternative rock” almost as much as I did heavy metal. Among my favorites was The Smashing Pumpkins; the band’s swirling and spacey yet surprisingly metallic hard rock was like nothing I’d heard before at that point, and I found it much easier to identify with main man Billy Corgan’s nerd/asshole/hopeless romantic shtick than Kurt Cobain’s junkie poet. I might have had more Nirvana posters on my wall, but I listened to Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness way more than I did Nevermind.
As much as I loved the Pumpkins’ first three albums, the Chicago quartet lost me completely with 1998’s Adore, which traded in the hard rock histrionics of Mellon Collie for a more electronics-laden sound, something my riff-obsessed brain couldn’t comprehend at the time. I didn’t check back in with the band until 2012’s Oceania, and while the sprawling psychedelia was there in abundance on that album, it lacked the catchiness Corgan had perfected on classic Pumpkins songs such as “Cherub Rock” and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” My hopes that Corgan had gotten his groove back were summarily dashed.
But the thing is, I’m rapidly turning into a nostalgic old prick. As such, my memories of listening to The Smashing Pumpkins during my formative years are so fond that I can’t help but keep giving the band a chance. So I couldn’t help but once again get my hopes up when 2014’s Monuments to an Elegy was released, and for the first time since 1995, The Smashing Pumpkins have lived up to my lofty expectations.
Momuments to an Elegy sees Corgan streamlining the Pumpkins’ approach, and for the most part the results are excellent. Some might argue that these songs lack the depth of previous efforts, but I would argue that they’re a batch of catchier-than-herpes pop rock nuggets that remain stuck in your head long after the album’s thirty-three minutes have run their course. As with all Pumpkins material, the tracks feel meticulously assembled and the production is topnotch; although I haven’t liked every single thing Corgan as done over the years, the man is simply incapable of doing anything half-assed.
Indeed, Corgan’s alternative rock meets synthpop formula is a winning one that lends the album a timeless quality; these songs could’ve worked as well in 1982 or 1992 as they do right now. It’s more about choruses and refrains and the totality of the craftsmanship than it is about riffs, but goddamn if it doesn’t work. The mixture of crunchy guitars and interstellar synths that permeates tracks such as “Being Beige” “One and All” and “Monuments” remains a feast for the ears even if they lack the ambitiousness of some of Corgan’s more grandiose works and quite frankly, they’re the among the most infectious songs the man has ever written precisely because they ditch the pomp and circumstance altogether.
What ultimately makes Monuments to an Elegy such an engaging listen is that there’s still a world of sound crammed into each of these songs, but this is juxtaposed with a stripped down sensibility and a playfulness that’s downright infectious. Every track is memorable in its own way and there simply isn’t a dud to be found anywhere; I continue to find these songs popping into my head at the most unexpected times, even after I’ve taken a lengthy break from listening to the album. Realistically, I’m sure at least some of my enjoyment of this is due to my aforementioned nostalgia for the Pumpkins of old, but I sincerely believe this is the closest Corgan has come in two decades to touching the blissed-out, space age pop glory of his prime.
I doubt anything will ever capture the same feelings I had listening to songs like “Today” and “Rocket” for the first time, but Monuments to an Elegy is still a highly enjoyable album that does an exquisite job of tickling my rock and synthpop fancies simultaneously. It’s a rare treat when a once beloved band that lost its way long ago comes back into your listening sphere; if Corgan can continue producing music at this level of quality, then consider me fully back on board.