Full disclosure: the Smashing Pumpkins are one of my absolute favorite bands, and I am absolutely a geek (U.S.A) for them. I’ve been following them since I first discovered their music shortly after their initial 2000 demise. Since then, the band has taken myriad forms both in lineup and sound, with the results often feeling more disappointing than uplifting, even to a superfan like me.
But the fact of the matter is, the Pumpkins have always been about taking risks. Whether peddling stunted goth-metal with Zeitgeist, or gambling successfully on expansive technical math-rock with Oceania, this is a band interested in continually evolving, even if the end result nosedives as soon as it’s launched. With the new double-album CYR, the next evolution of the Smashing Pumpkins has arrived, and their synth-soaked pop-rock odyssey is surprisingly successful and succulent.
CYR is somehow both contemporary and anachronistic in its sound. The driving, four-on-the-floor percussion calls back to late 70’s prog and disco, while the sampled beats and programming point to a more modern production style. The choice of synth tones and textures feels like a revival of the late-80’s aesthetic from the band’s early days, yet their subtle application under the guitars in “Anno Satana” or the synchronous weaving in “The Colour of Love” are reminiscent of Adore. Even the compositions call back to the band’s roots—we haven’t heard a pop-tilt like this from the Pumpkins since the pre-Gish singles, and the prevalence of drum machine beats can be seen as a subtle nod to the band’s first (and allegedly terrible) gigs before Jimmy Chamberlin joined the band.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZFh-zqRZC8
The Smashing Pumpkins are known for their voluminous sound and aggressive instrumentation (see the 40+ guitar tracks Billy put in a single song on MCIS), but in contrast to much of their previous catalog, CYR is remarkably subdued. The percussion is pulled back and primarily programmed, providing a sturdy pulsating foundation for the symphony of synthesizers. Billy’s vocals are saccharine and sorrowful, often harmonizing with his powerhouse backing vocalists Katie Cole and Sierra Swan or providing poignant countermelodies to their expansive singing.
Sparse but poignant guitar work adds a rock filigree to the pop aesthetic, and heavier tracks like “Wyttch” or “Purple Blood” scratch that goth-rock itch to which the Pumpkins have laid claim. The band’s choice to interpret their compositions primarily through synthesizers speaks to their dedication to their craft—they see their songs not just as the music they make together, but as blueprints that can be molded into bizarre yet beautiful shapes.
Billy Corgan has always been a sadboi and a romantic, so it’s not surprising that this record’s lyrics are dripping with dolorous and lonely images. But that loneliness is introspective, as many of the songs point an analyzing eye at Corgan’s past. “Telegenix” dives into the depression that is inherent in the altered-reality experience of celebrity, while “Adrennalynne” offers a reminder that art should be made first and foremost for the artist: “When you’re on the stage / There isn’t blood to squander/ ….These riffs don’t mean shit but what I want.” “Birch Grove” similarly takes a look at Billy’s legacy, opening with the lines “I foresee a time without me / …I’ve stood for so long” before accepting that his music will indeed outlive him: “My seedlings grow and grow / And home is whatever ground they hold.”
One feature of CYR that stands out heavily is the heavy literary influence on the lyrics. Songs like “Ramona” and “Haunted” opt for a truly antiquated approach, utilizing phrasing techniques heavily reminiscent of the 19th century Gothic authors like Poe. Plenty of Greek myths and figures appear across the record as well: “Wrath” especially pulls from Homer’s Odyssey with lines like “I’ve no more strength than Ulysses / …. And I’ve no more luck than Circe’s jest.” And Billy Corgan’s repeated use of the archaic informal “thee” suggests he is writing not to a specific person, but to any and all who will listen.
CYR is certainly its own odyssey, a journey that is long, often arduous, but certainly rewarding. I won’t say this record is too long, so I will instead say it’s not short enough; but even so, The Smashing Pumpkins have given us twenty powerful, resonant songs that do their legacy justice while pulling it forward into new territory. The uncompromising sound of the Pumpkins is one that includes its listener: each song provides a moment for one to sit, to listen, to feel and understand. And if you can understand, you will find your place in this album, just as I have.
My Top Tracks: “Wyttch” and “Wrath”
CYR is out via Sumerian Records; you can stream the album on Spotify, or purchase physical copies and exorbitantly-priced merch at the Smashing Pumpkins’ website. Their five-part animated video series “In Ashes” is available on YouTube. For all things SP, follow them on Facebook and Instagram @smashingpumpkins.