It's admirable, in a way, that Billy Corgan wants to cling to rock's bombast while all around others are letting it go. With his band, the Smashing Pumpkins, Corgan has just released "Machina: The Machines of God," a stadium-size, overblown, drunk-on-guitars attempt to capture the true vastness and grandiosity of rock 'n' roll -- or at least some semblance thereof. Then again, maybe the return to bombast has more to do with the fact that the band's last effort, the wispy and electronic "Adore" (1998), failed to chart as spectacularly as the previous Smashing Pumpkins CDs.
For the decade-old Pumpkins, this recording marks in many ways a return to its beginnings. Jimmy Chamberlin, who was kicked out in 1995 for drug problems, returns to give the band the forceful drumming it had not had since his departure. The album also features original bassist D'Arcy Wretzky, who was recently replaced by Hole bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur. Since leaving the band, Wretzky has been arrested and pleaded guilty to drug possession.
All of the shuffling aside, the constant throughout the Pumpkins' recording career is the superego that is Corgan. The front man has never been circumspect about sharing his belief that his band will save rock. But on this new record, he has even bigger plans: saving himself, saving his friends and -- who knows -- maybe even saving humanity.
It's a monumentally presumptuous and preposterous task that is almost as inflated as the music itself. On song after song, Corgan references himself and God almost interchangeably. When he isn't reinventing himself as a deity, he's playing the role of martyr.
"Let me die/For rock 'n' roll/Let me die/Save my soul," he sings on "Heavy Metal Machine," a guitar-fueled, crunchy echo of Neil Young's "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)." And on "Sacred and Profane," Corgan again imagines himself as a vessel for all of his brokenhearted, "feedback scarred/devotionless" followers: "You're all a part of me now/And if I fall/You're all a part of me now/In the sun/You're all a part of me now/You're all a part of me now."
Where Corgan's curious belief system will deliver them is never quite explained. Yet despite these obnoxious spiritual despot fantasies, Corgan and bandmates do create some better-than-average rock songs -- though certainly not strong enough rock upon which to build a religion.
"Try" and "The Age of Innocence" are irrepressibly catchy, have great hooks and boast lyrics that are a tad more subdued and comprehensible than the average Corgan fare. There's also "This Time," a blistering anthem addressing friendship that is all the more poignant considering the various tragedies and travails that have befallen the band. All three songs probably deserve to be hits. But too much of the rest of the album bogs down in the murk of swirling guitars and Corgan's incessantly inscrutable, self-worshipping lyrics.
At times on this new record, his familiar whining snarl begins to sound like a rock star clichi. It is as if he is simply trying too hard to fit the part. Adoration begets emulation and the result is an unfortunate, unintended self-lampoon. Setting out to save rock 'n' roll is presumptuous enough. Saving humanity with rock 'n' roll is just ridiculous.