It’s been a long and winding two months since the last ARM dissecting assessment found its way onto the ethereal airwaves of this site, although I’m not exactly sure this has anything to do with the fact that here is the next one instalment in the acclaimed series. What I’m sure about is that quite a few exhilarating and enthralling things have blossomed during this interval of time, such as for example Frank Ocean setting his infamously mysterious and controversially debated Instagram profile public for the rest time, going for full widespread collective visibility, or Frank Ocean heightening semiotic symbolism across a wider design constellation of epistemological meaning linking up a Swedish software monitoring company with a portion of his recent creative output. Also, since two days ago was a November Friday weekday, with reference to the time of writing of this very critical essay, among other things it also saw the release of a wide variety of rich and colourful new music, ranging from the heavily promoted and record industry-testosterone-fuelled Oxnard – Anderson .Paak’s follow up to his multivariate and brilliant Malibu (what a stinky and tacky disappointment…) – to a surprise surprise Mr Grinch-meets-Christmas-music drop by contemporary holistic pop culture provocateur Tyler, The Creator, all the while importantly passing through one of this year’s most highly anticipated mainstream rock releases: Smashing Pumpkins’ ludicrously titled tenth studio album Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun.
It’s kind of a great and arousing feeling to be analysing a non-hip-hop/rap project again after so long, and truth be told this doesn’t come without dusting off some of the aggravatingly accumulated critiquing rustiness and outdatedness of late. At the same time, giving closer look and listen to this new Rick Rubin-produced Shangri-La-bound, Malibu-sun-soaked record by one of rock’s most influential yet popularly underrated acts was sort of inevitable at this point, not least having recently re-sunk into their biggest unsung masterpiece of an album that 2000’s Machina/The Machines of God is, spending proper time and reflection trying to understand and connect to all of the fibres and textures of the sound that Billy Corgan and his troupe were able to manufacture for that record for the shape of heavy alternative music to come. For as heretical and controversial as it sounds to purist and fundamentalist adorers of the group, to me Machina/The Machines of God remains Pumpkins’ definitive work across songwriting, performance, production, delivery, and concept, as well as the one with the heaviest and most long-standing influences and permeations to the modern rock and roll zeitgeist.
As if this ignition were not captivating enough, just a few weeks ago my all time favourite musical outfit covered the Chicago alternative rockers’ world-wide smash hit “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” from their 1995 double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, as part of the noble and praiseworthy Songs That Saved My Life initiative, an arts-fuelled mission centred around music that played a pivotal role in the lives of artists and fans that benefits mental health and suicide prevention charities. Also of course, the whole bonkers PR frenzy around the fact that this new Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun. thing was the Pumpkins’ ‘reunion record’ par excellence, and the first one in so long with the full original line-up (except for outlier historical bassist D’arcy Wretzky), obviously made it a must-listen for anybody with any minimal vested interest in weaving into the current rock leitmotiv and so on.
So this project was fully overseen and executively produced by someone who to yours truly is sadly one of the most overrated and worshipped record industry influencer and opinion maker of the last two to three decades: American record produced and hard-rock/hip-hop industry executive Rick Rubin. Just so that everyone knows, Rubin is somebody who when it comes to commercially released albums left his last true quality mark in the space through Kanye West‘s gnarly and time-bending Yeezus in 2013, arguably quite a long time in a day and age where rap artists release sixty-nine new projects and mixtapes every other Friday. Hence why, this recent revivalist transition back into heavier rock and roll sonic meanders sounded suspiciously fascinating and potentially extremely error-prone for the bearded sound engineer, after having peaked and reached superior excellence heights with all sorts of popular acts such as Metallica, System of a Down, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Linkin Park a couple decades ago, back in an era where alternative rock was actually thriving and permeating the commercial music mainstream.
Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun. is a peculiar LP – strictly not to be labelled as an album in accordance to Billy Corgan’s own artistic senses – especially so for a usually dense, sophisticated, sarcastic, and layered recording act such as the Smashing Pumpkins. This thing is the band’s first release after 2014’s dull and average Monuments to an Elegy and is just eights tracks long, although sporting a little over half and hour and change of running time. This has to be the band’s shortest album (I’m sorry, Billy) in a long while if not ever, and even though the chaptered annex at the title’s end leads into thinking that there will be a companion sister release following the chunk of material present on this first volume, it’s certainly an interesting and daring choice for a group as always lyrically and sonically eloquent as the Pumpkins are. Partly compensating for the thinner material length with the hilariously infinite album title, and partly through the release of first teasing meaty yet sporadically messy single “Solara” on 8th June earlier this year, Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 results in an overall successful and accomplished record for the Chicagoans, at least with respect to not sticking to a commercially washed out formula such as tapping into the nostalgia aura and trying to recreate the sound and aesthetics of their monumental early records, or even settling for run-of-the-mill contemporary overblown and sanitised rock production vibes, something of a legitimate risk with someone like Rubin at the steering wheel.
Two months before the release of the LP the band revealed its second lead single in anticipation to the full length, titled “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)“, a song that even in retrospect, after hearing and digesting the full main sonic course, encapsulates perhaps the best variety of songwriting and production elements one could reasonably expect from 2018 Smashing Pumpkins. A three and a half minutes of linearly haunting and hypnotic guitar delivery, comprising of outstandingly superior lyricisms (“Stumbling before you speak / Stunning and stunning and stunning the black / You turn turncoat / Inward to seek out all your hopes / It’s your signals / That hurts me most“), hooky yet intelligent melody and harmonies, as well as that right and healthy amount of old Pumpkins spirit and rhythmic aesthetic pieces, with most people associating this tune with the band’s iconic melodramatic classic “1979“. Album opener “Knights of Malta” was unveiled as the unofficial third single a mere days before the full LP drop and joins “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)” in being hands down one the best moments on the project, while simultaneously conveying a particularly odd vocal-turned-riff motif by Corgan coupled by gorgeous choir-y singing that only grows catchier by the listen.
This record does however carry its unavoidable flaws quite explicitly too, as for instance with third song on the tracklist “Travels”, a very one-dimensional, hollow, lengthy, and lacklustre miscellaneous salad of rough ideas and half-baked melodies largely overstaying its welcome with an outrageous 5:23 of runtime (needless to say the longest cut on the LP). Albeit for different reasons, album closer “Seek and You Shall Destroy” too comes across as similarly underwhelming, with a song structure and rhythmic delivery trying way too hard and sounding like something that could have come out of a Muse album outtake, in addition to displaying a production style rocking all of those corny and overblown traits that one has grown to disdain in Rick Rubin over time. Luckily for any Pumpkins fan, the above two cuts emerge as controlled isolated incidents in an otherwise above-average and at times ingeniously inventive work of art by Corgan and co., perhaps best encapsulated by the feisty and powerful Machina-sound-funneling stunner “Marchin’ On”, or even semi-acoustic ballad beauty “With Sympathy”, showcasing the awe and brightness of some of the most quintessential Smashing Pumpkins lyrics ever (“For the love of irony / Let’s love, oh let’s love / For the love of irony / She’s laughing on, she’s laughing on / To stay confused / Disunion has its breaks / It’s ordinary aches and pains, I’ll take“).
There would be so much more to unpack and scrutinise with this – and for that matter any – Pumpkins album, starting from the whole idea of whether in the digital streaming era this ought to be considered a full length in and of itself to begin with (Kanye West says yes, while Billy Corgan calls it a collection of singles). Yet, with Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun., there is a strange feeling of sorts calling for a need to accept and perceive its full artistic demeanour as if at face value, as though they were to give us the impression that these are the first scattered and spontaneous renditions of the new Pumpkins era, whether we like it to be true or not. Either way, it’s a fantastic and a hugely warming pleasure to have them back, even if for now only in form of a lighthearted, concept-less, and instinctive set of tracks that nonetheless are already able to hint at the outfit’s artistic grandeur and gifted song crafting abilities. My advice is to continue to watch this space for when Billy is ready to jump back onto the bigger-than-life conceptual rock opera bandwagon again…
I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.
2018, Napalm Records