The Smashing Pumpkins have been in the musical conversation the last decade as more of an influence than a vital contemporary force. Yet Billy Corgan has resisted the financial incentive to become simply an oldies act. Instead since the demise of the Pumpkins Mach I he’s experimented with new bands (the ill-fated Zwan), solo projects (the 2005 synth-pop release, "The Future Embrace"), a partial reunion of the ‘90s Pumpkins (the 2007 "Zeitgeist" with Jimmy Chamberlin on drums), and a series of on-line releases by the new Pumpkins (the ongoing "Teargarden by Kaleidyscope"). Some had their moments, none has made much of an impact.
Now the first Pumpkins album in five years arrives, "Oceania" (EMI). It's Corgan with a relatively new but road-tested band: Corgan plus drummer Mike Byrne, bassist Nicole Fiorentino and guitarist Jeff Schroeder. A 2011 tour saw the quartet coalesce into something promising, with a batch of strong new songs. Several of those tracks anchor "Oceania," which adds up to Corgan's best work since the '90s.
The big themes are vaguely spiritual, encompassing notions of enlightenment, self-knowledge, love. These interests can be traced all the way back to the Pumpkins’ first album, “gish” (1991), with its rich, religious lyrical imagery and artwork. Corgan has always been a hit-and-miss lyricist, darn near poetic in his best moments, clumsy in his worst, and “Oceania” contains examples of both (let the grumbling begin about lines such as “I’m gonna love you 101 percent”). But the notion of spiritual quest isn’t a bad theme for a mid-life album – it allows for a voice that is not only credible but can age gracefully. “It takes some life to find the light within,” Corgan sings on “The Chimera.” He should know.
Corgan is most articulate as an arranger of sounds, and "Oceania” paints on a big canvas, from the heavy metal churn of “The Chimera” to the keyboard pop of “One Diamond, One Heart.” The guitars crash in mighty waves on the opening one-two of “Quasar” and “Panopticon.” They charge, recede, surge and spiral in a ballet of dynamics that echoes the glories of prime Pumpkins. "The Celestials" builds a melancholy mood out of acoustic guitar and Mellotron, a vintage keyboard that approximates the sounds of a wobbly orchestra.
Corgan’s keyboard colors are especially vital to setting the album’s tone, as are his incorporation of vocal harmonies, featuring bassist Fiorentino. The chamber-rock of the exquisite “Pinwheels,” the nine-minute title song and the hypnotic “Pale Horse” create a three-song world within the album, a part of the journey that revisits the introspective terrain of the hugely underrated 1998 Pumpkins album “Adore.” For once the comparisons to ‘90s Pumpkins don’t ring hollow.