Billy Corgan is one of those ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ musicians. The legacy forged by those 90s The Smashing Pumpkins albums is an imposing presence, and Corgan’s lifelong challenge is to make new music in the knowledge that a large number of folks who made the band successful back in the day no longer seek out new music. They’re happy listening to the hits and catching that nostalgia wave.
But Corgan isn’t riding that wave. Just as 90s-era Smashing Pumpkins albums all sounded different to each other, the albums of this second epoch are also each drastically different to each other. And that’s how it should be. It would be a crime for an artist to spend one decade redefining themselves with each album and then spending the rest of their career rehashing that same sound. And so Monuments to an Elegy stands on its own merits. It’s also incredibly unique: the songs seem concise and yet augmented by psychedelic shimmers and technicolour flourishes. And although the whole thing is over in 33 minutes, there’s enough detail and depth packed in here to make it feel like an enjoyable 60.
The choice of Tommy Lee on drums (aside from a few instances of programmed drums where song-appropriate) is a genius move. Tommy is a monster of a rock drummer with a great sense of groove and a powerful attack that sometimes gets buried in Motley Crue’s production, but Monuments feels like it puts equal weight on Lee’s drums and Corgan’s vocals. Lee’s drums keep the synths of the pseudo-goth-dance of “Anaise!” from making the song feel synthetic. And between Corgan and co-guitarist Jeff Schroeder there’s plenty for guitar fans to digest; shifting, snaky riffs like the verses in “Monuments,” the wall of sound that kicks off “One And All,” the direct and dirty headphone-friendly tones of “Drum + Fife,” the Megadeth-like intro riff of “Anti-Hero.”
Overall there’s a flow and a dimensionality to this album that aligns it with the whole of Corgan’s career rather than any one particular moment, and yet it does so without inviting anyone to play “What album would this song fit on?”
And that’s the big dichotomy of Smashing Pumpkins. The band created what it did in the 90s by following its artistic muse, and it caught on. Now Corgan wants to continue to create and push the boundaries, and will probably never be at peace with the notion of nostalgia. Nor should he be. It’s that same drive that made the music popular in the first place. In an alternate universe there’s probably a Smashing Pumpkins who alternate between artistically-fulfilling smaller tours in smaller venues where they explore experimentation and extrapolation, and arena tours playing the hits with old members to satisfy those who want that, and to maybe swell the coffers a little to pour into the next new, creative project. That’d probably make things easier on the nostaliga fans who only want to hear the songs they can tie to a teenage memory, and for those who don’t want to hear recreations of 20-years-ago angst too. But this particular universe that we’re in, this is the Smashing Pumpkins we have, and it’s the one we need.