I always like to say that the reason Nirvana has managed to retain their lofty status as alternative rock untouchables while their contemporaries have seen their collective stars dim is that Kurt Cobain killed himself before they could release a terrible record. I’m sure they had it in them. If Kurt had lived to see 2002, You Know You’re Right would have been way back in the rearview mirror and they’d have almost certainly have released a terrible record by then or at least a handful of forgettable ones.
Nobody is immune.
Around the time that Kurt killed himself, the Smashing Pumpkins were working hard on *their* last great record: the double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. It spawned five hit singles (six if you count Muzzle) and captured every aspect of songwriter Billy Corgan’s eccentric personality. Subsequent albums Adore and MACHINA were successful, but completely overshadowed by it. Then, rather abruptly, Corgan disbanded the Pumpkins citing an inability to match the commercial success of vapid pop artists like Britney Spears as a point of frustration.
Fast forward to 2007. After a handful of side-projects that failed to even remotely capture the same level of attention as the previous records, Billy Corgan and Pumpkins drumer Jimmy Chamberlin, (and sans former members James Iha and Melissa Auf der Maur) released Zeitgeist under the Smashing Pumpkins name.
It flopped. In relative terms, of course. It sold 500,000 copies! But critically it was panned. My Pumpkin-loving friends have unanimously deemed it the worst record (a title I reserve for Adore) citing… well, awfulness.
I don’t see it. To me, it’s just a rock record. It’s not great. But it has some big heavy songs like Doomsday Clock and Tarantula. The thunderous drone of United States puts the Pumpkins into territory not explored since their eleven minute epic Starla (though, once again I will concede that the song comes off better live than on record and either way, Starla did it better) The meandering Bring The Light has a thirteen second guitar solo that I like to joke redeems the whole album. (I’ve embedded it below for you to judge for yourself. It starts at the 2:09 mark)
Not to say the record is without its problems. For starters, Corgan’s vocals are way too high in the mix, taking some muscle out of the heavier songs that rely on it so much. Also, there are some real stinkers. Starz is flat-out embarrassing, Pomp and Circumstance pointless and (Come On) Let’s Go comes off as a cheap Zero rip-off.
I think Zeitgeist gets a bad rap because it came seven years after the group disbanded and people had plenty of time to forget that as great as Mellon Collie was, the albums that came immediately after it didn’t come close to meeting it in quality. As nostalgia was hard at work airbrushing out songs like Take Me Down, a standard was being put in place that couldn’t possibly be met by *anything*, never mind a good but not great album like Zeitgeist.
Nowadays, the Smashing Pumpkins are regarded as one of those old alternative rock bands that hung on too long. No one but hardcore fans can name more than a couple tracks off their latest album. With a new record on the way, people are bracing themselves for more disappointment. I’ll check in on it a couple weeks from now and let you know what I think of it. But until then, I can’t help but wonder what the Smashing Pumpkins legacy would be like if they had indeed hung up their instruments for good in 2000.