When a friend recently told me that he had some free tickets to see The Smashing Pumpkins at the Palace of Auburn Hills and asked if I wanted to go, my first response was "meh." I love going to concerts, don't get me wrong, but I'm not a big fan of arena shows. I'm more of a small-to-midsized venue kind of guy; I frequent the Orbit Room and the Intersection in Grand Rapids, for example. Frankly, there aren't a lot of artists for whom I'm willing to make the long hike to Detroit or Chicago. And while the Pumpkins were a band I enjoyed during my high school and college years, they haven't exactly done anything that I've cared about for a long, long time. But my wife convinced me that it would be a fun night, so I acquiesced, and we went with my buddy to see the show.
Now, I'm the kind of guy who has more fun at concerts if I know the music, so I checked out their recent set lists online and discovered that they were starting their recent shows by playing their new album, Oceania, in its entirety from start to finish, followed by selections from the rest of their canon. I hadn't heard anything off the new album apart from first single "The Celestials." But not wanting to sit through an hour-and-a-half of music that I wasn't familiar with, I checked out Oceania from this very institution, and set about listening to it repeatedly over the next two days leading up to the concert.
I went in with low expectations; Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness were quintessential 90s masterpieces, but I never got much out of 1998's Adore or 2000's Machina/The Machines of God. And following those releases, years of clashing egos, infighting, rotating membership, and the overall decline of sales ended up tearing the band apart. And had that been the end of the chapter, the Pumpkins would have probably been remembered fondly as a band that burned bright and hot and quickly-one that left its mark on music history. But front man (and driving creative force) Billy Corgan, a notoriously temperamental and grandiose personality, spent the next decade making it hard to love the Pumpkins. He'd swear off the band and then reform with different members; he'd verbally attack old band mates in the press; he be dismissive of his audience in interviews; he even swore off making albums ever again, having declared it a "dead" format (he claims Oceania is merely a chunk of a planned 44-song cycle that is to be released as individual singles over a span of many years). It became hard for a fan to separate the Pumpkins name with the megalomania of Corgan. Much of this could have been forgiven if, say, any of the music that had trickled out over the years had been engrossing.
So it was to my surprise that, after a few listens, Oceania grew on me (the album is pronounced "oh-see-AN-ee-ya, not "o-SHUN-ee-ya" or how "ya'll pronounce it up here" as Corgan scolded at the show; I'm not entirely certain what Corgan meant by "up here," considering Detroit is not that much farther north latitudinally than his hometown of Chicago). There are several standout songs, my favorites being "Panopticon," "My Love Is Winter," "Pinwheels," and "Glissandra." The song titles and lyrics may be pretentious, but the music is energetic and, at times, ethereal. It's easily the Pumpkins' most cohesive and satisfying effort since the late 90s. And while Corgan seems to remain as frustrating and self-indulgent as ever, if he keeps creating music like he's done with Oceania, perhaps he can also make The Smashing Pumpkins relevant again.