There’s a scene in “The Simpsons” in which a group of children is brought in to serve as a focus group to give their opinions on the long-running cartoon “Itchy and Scratchy.” Naturally, the kids want the show to remain true to its origins, but they also want the cartoon to strike out in new and interesting directions. The frustration felt by the high-paid media consultants in the episode is emblematic of one aspect of success: how do you continue to be innovative and creative as an artist, while still giving your fans what they’ve come to expect from you? This is the conundrum faced by Billy Corgan and company on the latest Smashing Pumpkins album.
CYR, the band’s 11th studio album, is a synth-heavy reimagining of the Pumpkins’ sound that will please some fans and likely irritate others.
It’s increasingly obvious that Billy Corgan is The Smashing Pumpkins. While the frontman has always been the creative force behind the band and even played all of the instruments on some of the band’s early recordings, CYR almost feels more like a solo album from Corgan than a collaborative album. This is mostly due to the extensive use of synthesizers that takes the place of the subtle interplay of Corgan and James Iha’s guitar work that buoyed those early albums.
On the second track, “Confessions of a Dopamine Addict,” a pulsing string section serves as the musical backdrop for Corgan’s idiosyncratic vocals. The synthesized musical bed feels poppier and less “alternative” than much of the band’s early catalog. Gone are D’arcy Wretzky-Brown’s structural bass lines, replaced by ’80s new-wave-sounding bass synths.
The other difference is that Corgan’s vocals are less processed and mixed higher in these songs. Corgan himself has acknowledged that his signing voice is not conventionally pretty or even on-pitch all the time, but the vocalist developed a unique sound for his vocals with a combination of studio tricks and a genius for composing vocal parts that worked with the song. Songs like “1979” succeeded by blending his unusual voice like another instrument. On CYR, Corgan’s unadorned vocals are foregrounded in the mix like most pop music.
The result is that Corgan’s cat-working-on-a-hairball vocals are the focal point in almost every one of the album’s 20 tracks. On the title track, they dominate the synth-laden pop and new wave soundscape. He delivers the lyrics with the straightforward simplicity of those ’80s pop bands: Simple Minds, Thompson Twins, The Pet Shop Boys. But both the vocals and the lyrics sound contrived and forced as Corgan sings, “Say, I done told you (ah)/ Say how I tried, too/ Where you’ve wrought from creation’s crown.” Grammarians should be warned not to attempt diagramming that sentence.
Fans will appreciate the contributions of Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, who continues to demonstrate his talent and versatility. Chamberlin seems as comfortable programming drum machines on CYR as he did bashing the skins on heavy Pumpkins’ classics like “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” His propulsive drumming stands out on songs like “Wyttch” and harkens back to the energy that made those early albums so exciting.
Any scientist will tell you that the thing about experiments is that most of them fail. It’s admirable that Corgan and company are striking out in new directions, even if these new sonic endeavors fail to possess the same magic that made The Smashing Pumpkins one of the most influential bands of the 1990s. Fans will find something to like on this record, and who knows, maybe their new sound will bring them new fans in the 21st century.