Thursday, February 21, 2008

Treatise on Billy, part one of many


I love the Smashing Pumpkins, and i'm not afraid or ashamed to say it.

Why should I? Well, Billy Corgan's pretty much an asshole, and probably crazy. But besides that, he's incredibly prolific, and the vast majority of those songs are really good. I'm discounting most of their singles, aside from, say, 1979 and 33. The singles are good, but they don't give nearly enough insight to how good a songwriter he can be. I could try to explain why they're so good, but instead, I'm going to pick three songs that I love dearly and show you. No, you know what? Four songs. It's hard to pick!! There are over 400 Pumpkins songs!!!

Wound, from Machina: The Machines of God.

I pick this one because i just listened to it, and it echoed hard in my head tonight.
Wound may have near-pompous poetic lyrics, but they work, because at it's core, I think Wound is as simple a love song as you can get. The fact that the lyrics are groping toward the heavens (destroyed in the wake / the jealous ingrates / will tear this world down / to spite god above / with his own love) just prove the sincerity of the singer's feelings. He can't put into words what he's feeling well enough, but he's trying so hard. But at the chorus, he gives up and says it plain: "If you wait, I will wait. Taste, I will taste. If you run, I will run, to my last breath."

The music behind this is urgent and all-encompassing, as his love envelops the whole world in song. Seriously.

Set The Ray To Jerry, from the 1979 single.

I pick this one because it's one of my favorites, and it's been fairly important to me for a long time. I couldn't say it was my first favorite Pumpkins song (that would have to be Porcelina, another long and stupid story), but it was one of the first that made me really value this band.

Lyrically, the song is a little frightening. The singer is held in the tight grip of a lover (or is it not even a lover? maybe it's someone he wants too badly?) The whole song is a little inscrutable and ambiguous, but two things are clear: the singer adores someone (in some way) so much he hates himself (and the object of desire) for it, and the chorus (I want you, I need you, all you are is brand new) is really sarcastic.

Musically, the song is as nighttime as you can get. In a way, it makes sense it wasn't on Mellon Collie, and thematically (Dawn to Dusk, Twilight to Starlight), this song takes place in the dark before dawn. Mellon Collie has it's vitriolic moments (Tales of a Scorched Earth, I'm looking at you), but Set the Ray wins the contest for holding it's cards to it's chest with it's vitriol.

Pennies, from the Zero single.

I pick this because it's a damn fine pop song with touchingly funny lyrics. Billy says this:
"One of those songs that I wrote in 10 minutes and can't seem to shake off. I like this song a lot, and find myself humming it about the house, as it is a very rare example of actual Pumpkins humor in a song."

It's one you hum, and it's one you laugh at, and yet it's neither too drippy or too morose to lose it's charm. Billy gets an A+ from Pop School.

Stellar, from one of the myriad versions of Zeitgeist.

I said this:
"I pick this because it's proof that Billy still knows how to write a song that can stand up with the rest of them."

What I mean is: Zeitgeist was better than I thought it was going to be, but it was far from perfect. The main problem with it was that Billy didn't know what scope of the Pumpkins was the most important. He thought (because people on the street told him) that it was the hard-rocking that was missed, and made an album that had very little moments of pause (and is it a surprise that said moment, Neverlost, is one of the best moments on the album? No).

The truth is that Billy ignored a huge facet of what made the Pumpkins the Pumpkins, the Heartsongs (thanks, Zwan). The thing is, no one whose favorite album was Adore was going to go up to Billy and say so. It would be too dear to them to cheapen it like that. Only Bros and Dullards were vapid enough to go up to Billy and tell him to rock again.

Here's the hard truth: Stellar would have saved Zeitgeist. It's a song that proves Billy can still write great songs. And it's a song that bridges the gap between the Pumpkins and Billy's solo album, TheFutureEmbrace (which I am not a critic of). Stellar would have been the true much needed rest between the crushing riffs of Zeitgeist. As it is, Neverlost is too slight a rest, it still has a rocking solo. Stellar is more than just a rocker, it's more than just a Heartsong. It manages to connect both strains of Pumpkin songs, and in doing so is more affecting than anything on either Billy's solo album or Zeitgeist. It is a song that can, without any hesitation, stand up in the canon of Smashing Pumpkins songs.

For Martha, from Adore.

I pick this because I'm fairly convinced it's one of the greatest songs ever written. For serious.

It's hard to say more than the above sentence. Technically, For Martha is great because the more you listen to it, the more little bits you pick out, more tiny overdubs that serve the song, to get it from small to big to huge. Every tiny bit of this song is perfect. There's a video of Billy doing the vocals for this song, and he redoes one line (whenever I run to you, lost one) at least 10 times. It's clear that this song is important to Billy (of course it is, it's about his departed mother), and every little bit in this song is aching, yearning to be the most fitting tribute.

It's not only a glorious tribute to his mother, but to song writing in general. Composition rarely gets better than this in modern rock music.


I guess one of the reasons why I still listen to The Pumpkins is because they were the band that actually got me wanting to play music. I picked up a guitar because of Mellon Collie. The first song I could sing while playing was Disarm. Sitting down and trying to pick about every overdub in a Pumpkins song was really educational, but the thing is, after doing so, instead of liking a song less, instead of having the mystery taken out of it, i like it more. I am so into these songs. I can't even explain it.