Second Listen: “Zeitgeist”


Every week in Second Listen, Frank Macarthy looks back at lesser-loved albums from well-loved bands’ discographies.

There are bands out there that specialize in pissing off their fans. Death Grips, for instance, have decided that they are too good to attend their own shows. Pete Doherty would show up most of the time, but his brain was still taking a heroin nap. Jay Reatard showed up somewhat sober every time, but that also meant you might have gotten a boot to the face if you got too close to the stage. Oh, and Metallica had that whole album that sounded like it was recorded with a microwave. Clearly, it’s not too hard to alienate the people who practically sign your paychecks. But, there’s one band that has probably pissed off more fans than any other: The Smashing Pumpkins. (Let’s be real here. Corgan was the heart of the problem – but he was also the heart of the band.)

The Smashing Pumpkins started out as a two-piece new-wave/alternative band starring Billy Corgan, James Iha, and a drum machine. They recorded a bit and dragged their feet through some slummy live shows in Chicago until they met D’Arcy Wretzky at another slummy live show and recruited her as their bassist. All they needed was a drummer. But, who needs a rock drummer for a rock band? Obviously not the Pumpkins, since they picked up jazz enthusiast Jimmy Chamberlin. This was the lineup through Machina II (sans the drum machine years of Adore and the D’Arcy-less years of Machina). They had become a family, a Chicago staple, but one album threatened the dynamic.

Zeitgeist was the first Smashing Pumpkins album since Machina and Machina II were released in 2000. We had Zwan’s Mary Star of the Sea in 2003, but nobody seemed to care (it also didn’t help that Corgan distanced himself from the project as much as he could). Fans were itching for a new Pumpkins album, because apparently a supergroup consisting of members from Slint, Chavez, and A Perfect Circle (don’t be surprised if you see a review from one of these bands in the coming weeks) wasn’t good enough. Mary Star of the Sea was underrated and misrepresented as something other than a Smashing Pumpkins album. I’ve got a lot to say about this, but let’s save that for another week.

“Tarantula” was the first single released from Zeitgeist. It hit every major radio station in the city and was beaten to death before the album even came out. I remember downloading a piss-poor recording someone obviously ripped straight off the radio and blasting it in my car for months on end until the album finally released. I took part in the “Tarantula” overplay of 2007, mostly because it’s a great song, partially because I had the “I need a new Smashing Pumpkins album” itch. It has the same fuzzy feel of classic Pumpkins, but for a new generation of recording quality snobs. It’s tight, technically clean, but somehow still dirty and raw at the same time. This single only raised the hopes of Pumpkins fans.

Then the full album was released and the hate flowed like PBR in Wicker Park. “Doomsday Clock” kicks off this supposed turd of an album with a swift knee to the face. I’m talking second disc of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness kind of heavy. Billy is the star, but Jimmy is the focus. The song builds on the drums and slowly eases listeners into the new, studio-enhanced voice of Billy Corgan. Just because Billy can’t sing like he used to, doesn’t mean he can’t play his guitar like he used to. The riff is raunchy and almost feels unfinished. This track has classic Pumpkins written all over it.

Although Billy and Jimmy are the only two original members present on the album, they are the two you want on a Pumpkins album. There is a certain heavy-handedness that isn’t as painfully obvious on other Pumpkins albums (tracks such as “United States” and “For God and Country”), which is a little unsettling. If I wanted an agenda pushed on me, I’d go back and listen to my old Anti-Flag albums (actually, that’s not a bad idea). But, for some reason, I still can’t find a reason to dislike this album. Songs like “Starz” and “Bleeding the Orchid” bring the layered Pumpkins complexity I have come to expect, while tracks like “Neverlost” and “Zeitgeist” carry that acoustic driven, melancholic Adore kind of feel. This is the Smashing Pumpkins you know. Kind of.

Bands change. Get over it. I’ve never understood the seemingly accepted surprise fans have when a band evolves. Green Day decided to put down the joints and pick up the black eyeliner. So what? They have a bigger fan base and make more money than they ever have, good for them. The Black Keys are a full band now. Good. I’m glad that they are past remaking another Rubber Factory, because we already have one. Sometimes it’s hard to accept these transformations, but if we are able to understand that new directions are not always a backhanded statement to their fans, I think we would be less pessimistic about new releases. Zeitgeist isn’t the Pumpkins’ best album. Not by far. But it’s definitely better than it got credit for. Sometimes, the fans are the assholes.