Let no one ever fault Billy Corgan for a lack of ambition. Condemn him for his narcissism, his pig-headedness, his boorish behavior, but never write him off as someone content to reheat last year's album and serve it up as a substitute for something new. It's not in his nature, as every track on Monuments To An Elegy
demonstrates. This is not to say that his execution always matches his aspirations, or that he's not often led astray by fundamentally botched ideas — one of the greatest flaws on Monuments
is a tendency to overreach — but that there is never a dull moment.
The excessive noise works, at moments, to the music's benefit. Take the album's showstopper "Drum + Fife." The second of subsequent attempts at an anthem, and the only one of the two that really works, "Drums," marries the elements of a folky Irish ballad with a rocking sensibility. The track's drums stay heavy and steady with a spine-straight rhythm that compels as much as it excites, while the guitar lays down a melody with a distinctly martial style. It's a song with lift, the one time on the album where Corgan's boasts, "and I will play this drum 'till my dying day," feel substantial.
Corgan seems most confident in the moments he allows the drums—provided here by Tommy Lee of Motley Crue infamy—to take center stage. The album rarely feels as assured as it does with the opening of "Anaise!," when the lock-step rhythm of the drums and the cavernous bass push ahead with convincing insistence. The immediacy of the album's percussion allows Corgan's vocals to comfortably fade for a bit, instead of striving to hold the song together the way they seemed to for so much of the Pumpkin's history. There's room enough for other heavy sounds, Corgan seems to realize, and if that means he feels a tad too comfortable in places — he seems to have lent the instruments all of the essential musk and lust missing from his voice on love-song "Anti-Hero" — it also means that he feels assured enough to add more than a few flourishes.
If only those flourishes bolstered the work rather than burden it. While many, Corgan included, have noted that this album is driven by its guitars, its hard to dispute that the synthesizers and their various effects arent more apparent. Where the guitars are often reserved, with Corgan preferring to drop a strategic lick here-or-there instead of noodling on them with indulgent abandon, the dusty keys are deployed with considerably less discretion. There arent any clueless solos or anything, but there are so many ill-advised effects splattered across the album — the laser blasts in Anaise! that render all of that early promise hokey, the arpeggios that open and fill Monuments with their plastic noise — that it seems as if Corgan feels that music is a zero-sum game: everything thats taken out must be replaced.
The Pumpkins have never been known to settle for sparse arrangements, but one wishes they might learn. Excess is fine on a rousing and controlled number like Drum + Fife, or when it lends welcome shading to the funereal sounds of a number like Tiberius, but it turns to ugly bombast when applied too liberally as on Run2me. Corgan and company couldnt have doubted this song was a mess; the idiotic title practically gives it away. Its every self-serious dance-hall anthem in the last twenty years mashed into the most hackneyed product imaginable. The shimmering piano plinks, the pulsing beat, the swelling build of Corgans vocals, the overly-optimistic lyrics and the pseudo-tribal drums and claps are deployed to engender the sense that this is all some kind of unifying anthem. Its an ugly picture of the point where ambition turns sour, and a cautionary tale about where this album might have gone with even one wrong step. The fact that this cautionary tale was placed before Drum + Fife seems almost like a warning from Corgan to himself. As though the contrast between the best track on the album, and arguably one of the best in the bands catalogue, and the worst was meant to remind him of the dangers and merits of excess.
Monuments To An Elegy
is out now via Martha's Music. Get it on iTunes
, and listen to "Drum + Fife" below: