CURRENT ROCK CARRIES THE AIR OF AN APPREHENSIVE lover who's lately been having a bit of trouble maintaining an erection, fretfully wondering, "Will I be able to get it up tonight?" To the degree that record sales connote cultural significance, recent offerings from juggernauts like Nine Inch Nails and the Red Hot Chili Peppers just ain't fuckin' with teenypoppers like 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. Considering their status as one of the Lollapalooza set's few remaining Only Bands That Matter, the Smashing Pumpkins couldn't afford to release an album obviously attempting to maintain (regain?) legitimacy in the rock arena. Machina/The Machines of God isn't that album.
Billy Corgan's peanuts gang (guitarist James Iha, returned drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and bassist D'Arcy -- recently replaced by Melissa Auf der Maur of Hole) has always been a square-peg band, slightly misunderstood. The quartet was produced by Nirvana producer Butch Vig on its first two releases, Gish and Siamese Dream, and U2 producer Flood on its past two, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Adore, but the Pumpkins are neither Nirvana nor U2. Combining the rah-rah raucousness of punk with Zeppelinesque artful pretension and bombast, the foursome made it largely on the strength of Corgan's inspired songwriting and suburban-garage-band mentality. In this time of over-the-top Spinal Tap rockers like Marilyn Manson and play-acting hip-hop/rock acts like Limp Bizkit, the Smashing Pumpkins could reasonably be expected to messianically return to save us all. Machina/The Machines of God isn't that album, either.
For those sufficiently removed from hard rock to have credited Tricky with the Middle Eastern shuffle that girds Maxinquaye's "Pumpkin" (artfully sampled from Gish's "Suffer"), the Pumpkins' 1998 ballad-dominant Adore was a great album. History will probably record it as such anyway, but for the time being Corgan and Co. are behind an eight ball to pump up the volume and rock out like in the grungy days of yore. Nothing resembling the moody ambiance of the poorly received Adore crops up on Machina. Instead, the Smashing Pumpkins dish out an AC/DC-meets-the-Cure mélange -- particularly on the headbangin' "Heavy Metal Machine" -- more reminiscent of Siamese Dream, their creative summit.
"You know I'm not dead," Corgan sings on "The Everlasting Gaze," launching Machina/The Machines of God rather self-consciously but earnestly, in a metaphor for rock music and the band itself. Fulfilling his grandiose tendency to be the voice of rock, he later reproaches our "fickle fascination of an everlasting God" with the a cappella admission that "We all want to hold in the everlasting gaze/Enchanted in the rapture of his sentimental sway." An often navel-gazing fanboy of rock & roll, Corgan is fiercely aware of the genre's plight, and immediately addresses it head-on. Drummer Chamberlin's commanding return is manifest amid Iha's churning guitar; as Machina's lead single, the track resolutely rocks.
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THOUGH MELANCHOLY HAS ALWAYS BEEN AN UNDERLYING Pumpkins motif, titles like "Blue Skies Bring Tears" and "I of the Mourning" crown Corgan as the reigning postmodern Robert Smith. It's there in the lines as well: "I read your letters/To feel better/My tears upon the fading ink." And the sonic wash of heavy guitar on "Stand Inside Your Love" and mostly all of Machina pointedly recollects the feedback miasma of the Cure's Disintegration and Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me.
Much of Corgan's lyrics are prog-rock-typical obtuse, but when you can decipher what he's singing about beyond your own personal poetic interpretations, it's worth cocking your ear. He's welcomed the allegedly heroin-abusing Chamberlin back into the fold, while the deserting D'Arcy has recently been busted for crack possession, but "This Time" admonishes, "For every chemical/You trade a piece of your soul/With no return . . . We'll drink up every line/And shoot up every word/Till there's no more." Toward the end, he drops aphoristic food for thought like "If you want love, you must be love" and "Could you believe in heaven/If heaven was all you had?"
Resurrecting rock is a burden that should fall on no band's shoulders, and the Smashing Pumpkins have too many problems of their own to bother bearing that re- sponsibility. Brandishing a Gish-heyday balance of brawny three-chord guitar rock at the start, with a Mellon Collie wrap-up of more radically arranged tunes (most notably "Glass and the Ghost Children"), Machina/The Machines of God should reinstate the Pumpkins as the ruling alt-rock supergroup of Generation X; if they can tear their audience's attention away from the likes of Jay-Z and Kid Rock, they've got it made. Performance anxiety can be a motherfucker, but, without resorting to the Viagra of reinventing themselves to compete with the Kornballs of the world, the Smashing Pumpkins (ahem) rock hard.
THE SMASHING PUMPKINS | MACHINA/THE MACHINES OF GOD | (Virgin)