Starting late in 2009, Billy Corgan and his Smashing Pumpkins molded the distribution plan of their new music to the emerging habits of the web and its hit-or-miss consumption patterns. With an ambitious, 44-track song cycle in mind, called "Teargarden By Kaleidyscope," the band dropped a dozen songs a few at a time, like digital mini-EPs.
By last fall, however, Corgan lamented the effort, saying it was "a tremendous amount of energy to put out to just feel like you're throwing a pebble in the ocean."
"I reached a point where I saw that the one-song-at-a-time idea had maxed itself out," he said. "I just saw we weren't getting the penetration in to everybody that I would have hoped. I mean, we have 1.3 million followers on our Facebook page, right? So you think you put [a song] up and 1.3 million people are gonna see it -- but only if they're looking at the exact moment it goes up."
He added: "I just saw that we weren't reaching the sort of casual person who still gets their information from traditional sources. So I thought, 'What do I need to do?' and then I thought, 'OK, I'll go back to making an album.'"
The result is "Oceania," the next 13 songs in the "Teargarden" cycle but released in one batch like a traditional album. For once, believe the advance buzz about it -- this is easily one of the best albums of the band's entire career.
That phrase deserves qualification. The "entire career" of this band has included a few different bands. The name Smashing Pumpkins was splotched onto the map in the early '90s by Corgan's original, crazy-talented mates (James Iha, D'Arcy Wretzky, Jimmy Chamberlin). By the turn of the century, players began coming and going, not always amicably. The current lineup -- guitarist Jeff Schroeder, bassist Nicole Fiorentino and drummer Mike Byrne -- solidified in 2010, while some critics (myself included, regrettably) still bemoaned Corgan's stubborn, Pretenders-like continuation of the name. But the current quartet truly gels on "Oceania," emerging as a solid, collective force for the first time.
Due Tuesday but streaming this week on iTunes, this album within an album revives Corgan's gutter-epic vision with a clarity and ferocity not seen since 1995's "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness."
The hurricane squall of "Quasar" opens the set, with Corgan and Schroeder wielding an almost Television-like two-guitar attack and revving things up with a prayerful call to action: "God, ride on! Krishna, ride on!" There's more, brother: "Mom, ride on! Yod, He, Vau, let's ride on!" As the drums thunder and the guitars grind, grind, grind, Corgan's slap-back chants intone, "Yes, I understand / Yes, I know thy will / Yes, I am a man." Earthy Deep Purple, meet heavenly Kula Shaker.
From there, Corgan takes chances that pay off. He sings (not barks, not whines) melodious lines above the fray in "Panopticon" ("There's a sun that shines in me," he claims, continuing a decidedly golden-god vibe throughout the record). He coos and strums acoustic through "The Celestials," a superb composition indicative of this album's plethora of songs that grow, churn and evolve, full of nifty transitions (the switch to bass and electric guitar here catches your breath) and lovely left-turns ("Pinwheels" spins beautifully from chiming, jabbing electric guitars to acoustic and voice, complete with swooping female harmonies). The consistent creativity is almost tiresome by the album's end, but no one should complain.
"My Love Is Winter" is an alluring but cautious ballad, colored with more ringing electric guitars. But on this and several other songs, one gets the feeling you could play them acoustically just as easily and reveal some kind of autumnal-folk (Heron, Fairport Convention, etc.) underpinning.
The three-part suite of the nine-minute title track might have been called overindulgent amid another album. Evoking patient waves and limitless depths, the hooting synthesizers, eventual acoustic strum and rolling, almost funky, bass (and including a richly distorted guitar solo), the piece allows Corgan, or his undersea stand-ins, ask an important question ("How could I have ever doubted you?") and state something true ("I'm so alone, so alone / but better than I ever was").
Dedicated fans can feel vindicated. Wayward souls can return to the flock. Doubters can hush up. Those who feared Corgan was getting strangely distracted -- the pro-wrestling group, the North Shore tea shop -- can rest easy.
Smashing Pumpkins played their now-annual charity gig Thursday night at Metro, and even back in October they pummeled the Riviera Theatre. A world tour is expected in support of "Oceania." Billy, ride on!