Having written some of the best songs of the ‘90s, Billy Corgan has already cemented that the Smashing Pumpkins will go down as one of rock’s greatest and most influential bands of that era. Certainly, there is no need for Corgan to prove anything to anybody, even to the most harshest critics of 2007’s Zeitgeist. Nevertheless, Corgan continues to push forward with the band despite a rotating door of supporting members, attempting to innovate how modern rock music is produced and released. 2009’s Teargarden by Kaleidyscope was an ambitious example of this; Corgan attempted to create an album that one could listen to as it was being made, gradually releasing track by track in digital installments as if it were a comic series. Teargarden was, however, uncharacteristically under the radar, at least for Corgan’s standards. If one thing is for certain about the enigma that is Billy Corgan, it’s that he loves attention. So it comes as no surprise that when Oceania, the band’s first LP in five years, was announced, Corgan placed the spotlight on himself (and a ton of pressure to boot) by claiming the album to be the best since 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. This may not exactly be the case with Oceania, but Corgan isn’t too far off the mark with his confidence. It’s this same type of brashness and certainty that bleeds into the songwriting on Oceania, and the end result is an album that is easily the best thing Corgan’s done in the 21st century.
Oceania is essentially the fruit of Teargarden’s labor; it’s an album within an album and is meant to be taken as a piece of the conceptual Teargarden puzzle. The album commences with the stirring, distorted rumbles of “Quasar.” Corgan instantly sounds familiar to traditional Pumpkins tracks like “Geek U.S.A.” off of 1993’s Siamese Dream, and the rhythms of drummer Mike Byrne and bassist Nicole Fiorentino stand out impressively. The pace of the album continues forward with “Panopticon,” featuring sharp guitar tones and powerfully distorted chord progressions. The album’s first single, “The Celestials,” is easily the most memorable track on the album. Reminiscent of the classic hit “Disarm,” the song reveals itself as the true gem of Oceania when it twists from a quieter acoustic track to a heavier progressive rock gut punch.
Not every track on Oceania is golden though. “One Diamond, One Heart” is a decent song, but I have a hard time finding a place for it given the overall musical themes on the album. “Pinwheels” emerges as a fantastic interlude, giving about two minutes of instrumentals, but when it finally builds into an actual song, I feel a bit letdown given the first few minutes of the track. “Wildflower,” though a beautifully tragic song, doesn’t close the album as well as I would’ve hoped for. With Oceania getting off to such a fast start, I can’t help but to be left wishing for more from the album’s closing track.
The title track, “Oceania,” is easily the most ambitious effort on the album. We recognize hints of 1998’s Adore in the first third of the track, evolving into an acoustic ballad in the second third before reverting back to a rhythmic jam session for the final third. By the time the nine-minute journey has ended, one cannot help but applaud Corgan’s songwriting prowess. “Pale Horse” is also a stand out track with Fiorentino’s backing vocals meshing perfectly with Corgan’s, and the melody of keys on this track are nothing short of addictive. “The Chimera” and “Glissandra” follow, and much like the first two tracks on the album, these songs evoke that classic Pumpkins sound that fans know all too well.
In an interview with Stereogum, Corgan contrasted Oceania with the Pumpkins’ reunion in ’07, stating that this is “the first time where you actually hear me escape the old [Smashing Pumpkins]. I’m not reacting against it or for it or in the shadow of it.” That quote, I feel, sums up Oceania. Any sense of needing to conform to expectations that may have arose with Zeitgeist’s release are now out the window, and with that, Corgan is making rock music that actually warrants the band’s name being attached to it. It’s an almost unfair position that Corgan finds himself in these days; nothing he’ll ever produce will ever have quite as much an impact on the world of music as what the Smashing Pumpkins accomplished in the ‘90s. However, Oceania is precisely what Pumpkins fans needed: a reminder that Corgan never really lost the ability to write a valid Pumpkins album and enough great tracks to keep the band relevant in the modern age of rock.
3.5 out of 5