Ten Years #30: The Smashing Pumpkins

Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
30. The Smashing Pumpkins (1,058 plays)
Top track (36 plays): I of the Mourning, from Machina: The Machines of God (2000)

2000 might have been one of the most optimistic years in American history. Bill Clinton was still president, the massive corporate effort to overcome a Y2K electronic doomsday scenario had succeeded impressively, the medical field was speeding towards a glimmering utopian future of nanobots and stem cell technology, and we had just wrapped up the Kosovo conflict to conclude a rare decade characterized more by sincere humanitarian intervention than by capitalist imperialism. Though we would soon plummet back to the social and political stone age in successive waves of decadence, this naive teenager’s outlook on the future was a dreamy ideal of progress. If there was trouble in the air, I never felt it. Whatever concerns the future might bring were fundamentally tied to it, not to the here and now.

Every Smashing Pumpkins album struck me in a fairly unique way. Each Siamese Dream track seemed like an overwhelming independent entity; I would get hung up on a song like “Rocket” and listen to it over and over again for days before moving on to the next. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness I enjoyed more as a collective, basking in the roller coaster romp from ecstasy to sadness to rage that characterized juxtapositions like “Thru the Eyes of Ruby”, “Stumbleine”, and “x.y.u.” Adore kind of washed over me as a kid, and while I appreciate it more today, I will never quite get over the absence of Jimmy Chamberlin.

On Machina: The Machines of God, I think the vision of an album really overtook the band. Each song felt like a part of the collective to a greater degree than ever before. The highs and lows were all subdued. There was more total sound encompassing everything, while the edges of the heaviest tracks were dulled–while “We Only Come Out At Night” and “Tales of a Scorched Earth” certainly belong together as elements of a greater emotional road trip, “With Every Light” and “Heavy Metal Machines” were substantially closer in their musical approach and production. If Mellon Collie was a pendulum swinging violently between beauty and aggression, Machina rocked gently and subtly around its zen point. I fell in love with it even more than with Mellon Collie or Siamese Dream–a feat I did not think possible.

It might go against the popular grain to speak of Machina as the best Pumpkins album–of “I of the Mourning” and “Age of Innocence” as their best songs or “Stand Inside Your Love” as their best single. But these are definitely my favorites. I felt a perfect connection between the overall vibe of this album and my outlook on the world in 2000. “I of the Mourning” captured it perfectly for me–a positive cultivation of a sense of longing framed not by some mournful acoustic guitar but by that encompassing futuristic dream that characterizes the sound of Machina from start to finish.

Perhaps the stars just all aligned in the right place and time. Machina seems more like a personal testament to the band’s experiences together leading up to their impending break-up than a commentary on the state of the world. “Age of Innocence” functioned in retrospect as a clear final farewell. But it was a positive farewell, looking brightly to the uncertain future, and as such it seemed to coalesce with our passage into a new millennium. The 21st century promised, falsely as it turned out, to be a little less compulsive than the last, and I think Corgan likewise saw himself waving farewell to an endearing yet tumultuous phase in his life. I’ll leave you with that closing song:

We dismiss the back roads
and ride these streets unafraid
resort to scraping paint
from our bones unashamed

no more the eye upon you
no more the simple man

desolation yes, hesitation no
desolation yes, hesitation no
as you might have guessed, all is never shown
desolation yes, hesitation no

and in my prayers I dream alone
a silent speech to deaf ears:
If you want love, you must be love
but if you bleed love, you will die loved

no more the lie upon you
cast in stone the autumn shade

desolation yes, hesitation no
desolation yes, hesitation no
as you might have sensed, we won’t make it home
desolation yes, hesitation no

before the rites of spring
come to mean all things
a little taste of what may come
a mere glimpse of what has gone

cause for the moment we are free
we seek to bind our release
too young to die, too rich to care
too fucked to swear that I was there

desolation yes, hesitation no
desolation yes, hesitation no
as you might have guessed, we won’t make it home
desolation yes, hesitation no