It’s never not a tumultuous time in Camp Corgan. With the departure of both bassist Nicole Fiorentino and drummer Mike Byrne, the recording of Monuments to an Elegy was completed solely by Billy Corgan, guitarist Jeff Schroeder and, rather bizarrely, Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee. Furthermore, in recent times Corgan has received far more attention over his perceived erratic behaviour than for his music, playing eight-hour-long drone tributes to existentialist literature in his tea shop and starring in a local advert so amazingly tacky it’d make the Go Compare man re-evaluate himself as high art. Nevertheless, despite being created in this time of transition and apparent lack of self awareness, many are claiming that Monuments to an Elegy is a return to form; tight, focused, direct.
With a duration of 32 minutes spread over nine tracks, there is little room for self-indulgence, allowing Corgan to write in a manner he hasn’t successfully achieved since 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness; he is regimented, concentrated, almost studious in his keenness to orchestrate melody. For the first time in what feels like decades, Corgan’s proficiency as a purveyor of power-pop is once again shining through; tracks like ‘Being Beige’ and ‘Run2me’ gleam with glistening new-wave synths and majestic power-chords, recalling the wistful optimism of influences such as The Cars, The Modern Lovers and Big Star. Strikingly, Monuments to an Elegy appears to present Corgan as remarkably at ease with himself; on songs like ‘Tiberius’ and ‘Being Beige’ he’s still yearning for love and acceptance, however these observations are made in an assuredly whimsical fashion, executed with none of the malice previously exhibited in perhaps more adolescent material (see: Tales of a Scorched Earth).
That being said, he still knows how to rock, ‘One and All’ and ‘Anti-Hero’ featuring the sort of abrasive “future-metal” riffs made famous on ‘Zero’. While on any other modern-day Pumpkins record these blasts of energy would usually be drenched in production, the oft-bloated sonics are nowhere to be seen, making such lashings of aggression all the more potent. This more simplistic songwriting approach is surprisingly complimented by the controversial recruitment of Tommy Lee. Instead of attempting to emulate the jazz-fusion meddling of Jimmy Chamberlain or the prodigious pounding of Mike Byrne, Lee’s straightforward strategy is fit for purpose, the driving backbeats contributing to the overall less busy and fresh, refined sound.
However, in stripping away so much something feels fundamentally missing. While Monuments to an Elegy is fantastic in displaying Corgan’s ability as a pop song writer, this is only one facet of his talents; his skills in commanding textures and soundscapes are woefully underused. Additionally, Corgan lacks a perceptible spark or motivation to write; yes, the songs have a brilliant immediacy, but they’re not going to connect emotionally in the same way that ‘Today’ or ‘1979’ ever will. This is definitely an album that is crafted rather than inspired. It’s focused, but on nothing in particular.
Nonetheless, for going through the motions, it still sounds pretty damn good.
Monuments to an Elegy is out on December 9th via Martha’s Music/BMG.