25 January 2008

2007 in retrospective: Part IV (the end of the music opinions!)

Well, this is it. I'm nearly at the end of my overly-thorough dissection of the music I bought and liked in 2007. Today we're tackling the last album on my top 5 list: Zeitgeist, by the Smashing Pumpkins, my all-time favorite band (with Pearl Jam a close second).

We're not addressing it just yet. Before we get into the meat of the post, I'd like to hand out a few other awards for the albums that were plenty good, but just didn't make the paring down to the manageable list of five, or the ones I didn't feel particularly drawn towards, but still wanted to recognize, or the ones I flat-out didn't enjoy. The following awards come with no actual reward attached to them, are listed in no particular order, and are less than likely to ever appear ever again.

For discs released in 2007 and purchased by Phil Wrede (you could release an EP and get an award, you just couldn't make the list):

The Andy Roddick Memorial Award (for albums that were good, but just weren't quite good enough): 3's The End is Begun, Between the Buried and Me's Colors, Eddie Vedder's Into the Wild soundtrack, The Arcade Fire's Neon Bible, Blonde Redhead's 23

The Schizophrenic Death Metal Even Though It's Really Not Award [for the band that obviously listened to Opeth's Ghost Reveries too much (just like me!)]: Between the Buried and Me's Colors

The Salvador Dali Memorial Award (for the album that, while I think it's good, I'm still not sure I understand): Of Montreal's Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, Burial's Untrue

The Stretch Armstrong Tribute Award (for artistic growth): Thrice's Alchemy Index EPs, Sparta's Threes

The inaugural Spirit of Planet of Ice Award (which goes to any band that I previously thought subpar that finally managed to muster its collective talent together and release something worthwhile): Minus The Bear's Planet of Ice

The Bourne Identity Soundtrack Award (for my yearly reminder of how awesome electronic music can be): LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver

The Phantom Award (named in loathing memory of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace - a ridiculous letdown): Porcupine Tree's Fear of a Blank Planet, Queens of the Stone Age's Era Vulgaris

The "It's Totally Unfair to Release an Amazing EP" Award: Sigur Ros' Hvarf/Heim EPs

The Die Hard With A Vengeance Tribute Award (for a new release that, while still serviceable, still can't quite capture the magic of the ones that preceded it): Pelican's City of Echoes

The "Holy Shit! I Care About You Again!" Award: NIN's Year Zero, Radiohead's In Rainbows

The Samuel Beckett Memorial Award (for the album/s that just say "fuck you, I'm doing this my way and you have to deal with it," but in, you know, a good way): Tusk's The Resisting Dreamer

The Live Free Or Die Hard/Lethal Weapon 4 Award (for an album that, while not necessary, doesn't really damage the legacy of that which came before): The Smashing Pumpkins' Zeitgeist


And that, I suppose, brings us to #5 on my Top 5 Favorite Albums of 2007 list.

Admittedly, I might have forced Zeitgeist onto my list in kind of a "We'll give you an Oscar for this movie because we fucked you when you made your actual best movie" way, but I don't think that gives the reborn Pumpkins enough credit. While Zeitgeist is certainly not Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie, anybody that says it's a bad album can't properly let go of the past (and it's likely I'll get lumped into that category here in a moment myself).

First, some prefacing. Despite the fact that I looked down my nose at all the fucking high school kids that somehow think they're cool because they listen to the Pumpkins as they streamed into Red Rocks for my absolute favorite show of last year, I also came to Billy's band somewhat later in life than I would care to admit (sophomore year of high school). I claimed the Pumpkins as my own very quickly, drawn as I have always been to depressed, angry music with a flair for the oddball and somewhat ridiculous (he can make me laugh as often as he can make me depressed - the beauty of Billy Corgan).

"Cherub Rock" is my favorite song of all time; Siamese Dream, I'm convinced, is one of the best records anyone has ever released, and if I ever had to limit my musical collection to one album, it would be nearly impossible to fashion a convincing argument against keeping Siamese Dream, and only Siamese Dream.

I am a Pumpkins fan, but a Pumpkins fan that hates, absolutely loathes Adore. The only good that came out of that album was the realization that every single member of the band depended on Jimmy Chamberlain's drums more than they cared to admit (one of the reasons that Zwan was a far greater success than it had any right to be - Billy + Jimmy = musical gold). D'Arcy, James... infinitely more expendable than Jimmy. That's why, for all its glaring flaws, Machina was more of a Pumpkins album (and a decent one) than anyone was willing to admit at the time.

I bring all of this up to explain where I'm coming from when I talk about Zeitgeist, which I firmly believe is a good record because of the existence of a bad one: TheFutureEmbrace, Billy's solo album (not like the Pumpkins records weren't glorified solo albums anyway), which found our beloved depressed shaven-headed man dabbling in the same sort of electronic music that made Adore so mediocre.

I don't know why he needed to get it out of his system, but he did, and while in the short-term we weren't so well off for it, the long-term has proven his action correct. I'm assuming most people know about the full-page ad he took out on the day of TFE's release, declaring his intention to reunite (sort of) the Pumpkins and conqueror the world once again (and if you don't know the story, well, you're on the Internet); while I was convinced that this was yet another case of rock star posturing, a small part of me that had long since resigned itself to never getting to see Billy perform his songs live reawoke, and was ridiculously excited. That pronouncement, it turns out, was more than simple shit slinging, and well, here we are.

Anyway, finally, to the album. What I connect to so well in Zeitgeist is the enthusiasm; even when Billy's singing, "It's too late for everyone/I can't help what I destroy in you," in "For God and Country," he can't quite sublimate this ridiculous excitement in his voice. I actually don't think he was joking when he emphatically wrote about what the Pumpkins mean to him, what "his band" is to him.

It doesn't hurt that the enthusiasm comes wrapped up in some pretty darn good songs; when I heard the 30-second snippet of "Tarantula" on iTunes, I was less than inspired, but as it turns out, some songs take more than 30 seconds to make themselves, well, work. "Doomsday Clock" is pretty much a vintage Pumpkins song (minus the somewhat disturbing harmonizing Billies doing backup vocal work - that's what I mean when I talk about oddball), and "7 Shades of Black" adds a bit of a gothic wrinkle to the more straightforward Pumpkins sound. "Bleeding the Orchid" sounds like what I think Adore could've been if it had been, you know, good. There's an attitude to it (supplied in ample amount by Jimmy's drums) that the programmed percussion just couldn't supply. "That's the Way (My Love Is)" sounds, to me, a lot like a lost Zwan song (and is one of my primary arguments against the people that contend the album doesn't have a slow speed and is only concerned with straight-ahead rocking - "BtO" is another good example), and "Tarantula" I've come around on.

The key here, much as it was for Mary Star of the Sea (the Zwan album, in case I need to point that out), is the long song, the epic; "Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea" for the Zwan record, "United States" for Zeitgeist. I wasn't totally sold on it until they performed it at the show, but I've brought myself around. The thing about "United States" is that it doesn't exist as solely Billy's post-9/11 song; if it was only a discarded icon's call to battle against an oppressive American government, it wouldn't be half as powerful, but as always, I get a strong sensation that there's more going on beneath the surface.

The cry, to me, feels like it's for individuality, for the dispirited listener to rise up and recapture, or at least recognize, that which makes them important to them self. He's always been something of a self-absorbed artist, and I think "United States" is him reaching out to articulate the value of the self. He's leading the charge because, well, he's Billy fucking Corgan. Who better?

This whole post-9/11 vibe ("For God and Country"), the attacking of the celebrity obsessed modern culture (the album art), the anti-Bush stuff ("United States" again), I don't think it works as that exclusively. That's kind of his hook, the way he pulls you in (who doesn't hate George Bush at this point, honestly?), but once he's got you, he's got you the way Billy gets you. The album's far more personal than that, and I think simultaneously greater and smaller in scope. This obsession with terror, with controlling it and utilizing it for its own benefit that our government's developed (sorry - it would've been just as difficult to keep a political analysis out of a review of the Foo Fighters' In Your Honor; I don't know how anyone couldn't look at that disc and see politics oozing out of it), will eventually pass - everything does - but self-discovery, realization of self-worth, empowerment, all these sorts of things are timeless and will outlast petty political power grabs.

That's what makes Zeitgeist, for me. Billy's still concerned with the same things that have always fascinated him; he's not doing this just as a cash grab (though I doubt that idea never entered his mind). He's trying to add something, artistically, to the landscape. I can't fault him for that, and I certainly can't begrudge him the release of a good album. I wanted the Pumpkins chapter to be closed, so that no one could damage it any further, but Billy showed me. This had best be the start of a brand new chapter for me and my... Billy's, band.

And, just so we're clear, I know this is no Siamese Dream. He'll never make anything better than that, just like Dave'll never release a better album than The Colour & The Shape, or Eddie & Co.'ll never make a better disc than Vs. (though there are more than a few days that I'm certain the self-titled album is better. I need more time to think on that - a few more years might do it). Just because it's not Siamese Dream doesn't mean it's bad.

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