Smashing Pumpkins Not So Smashing

Between Michael Bay's impossibly awful "Transformers" movie, Thomas Harris's "Hannibal Rising" and the inevitable debut of trans-fat free Chicken McNuggets, it seems lately that there's no shortage of opportunities to obliterate our positive associations with once-reliable brands. So credit Billy Corgan of the sorta-kinda reformed Smashing Pumpkins for picking an apt title for the band's first new album in seven years: "Zeitgeist." Corgan's new album accurately represents the term, which translates roughly from German into "the spirit of the time," by reanimating the band that brought him worldwide fame, only to tarnish its legacy with an album that renders itself unlikable by trying too hard to be liked.

Corgan's Achilles' heel has always been his need for approval. Following the band's ambitious, practically operatic major-label debut, "Siamese Dream," in 1993, he spent the next seven years taking the Smashing Pumpkins through the standard motions of muting their sonic palette as a bid for "maturity." When fans didn't follow his every creative whim, he seemed to take it as an affront and personal failure in interviews, seemingly unable to extricate artistic success from commercial success. The slow decline of the Smashing Pumpkins had nothing to do with Corgan's choices, but merely the fact that his band rose to fame amid the '90s alt-rock era when it seemed every four-piece rock band had a shot at the big leagues. Very few bands escaped the alt-rock bubble burst.

Still, on "Zeitgeist," Corgan seems convinced that turning up the volume and setting the time machine for 1993 is the way to reclaim his band's success. But where the Smashing Pumpkins once sounded grandly insouciant, they now sound sterile and deliberate.

The lead single, "Tarantula," seems on paper like it would capture everything so adored about "Siamese Dream." It's stripped to the bare elements: Corgan's nasally head-voice, a punishing guitar riff and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin's frantic, ostentatious time-keeping. Yet something doesn't feel right about it. The guitars are aggressively overcooked, and the mixing makes Corgan's vocal sound distant from the track, like he's standing outside a karaoke bar singing along with a faint track to save himself the cover charge.

Most of "Zeitgeist" sounds like the work of someone trying to replicate a phase of his life that has passed. Corgan's gift back in the '90s was taking the bombast of the '70s rock he grew up with and translating it for a new audience. When he tries the same tactic here, it doesn't stick: "Come On (Let's Go!)" sounds like a tepid cover of Boston's "Peace of Mind," while the 10-minute epic "United States" invokes Jimi Hendrix but weakens its punch with uninspired, vaguely political lyrics.

Corgan sounds much more comfortable when he slows the pace, as on "Neverlost" (which, despite its title, appears not to be an ode to Hertz Rent-A-Car's GPS systems), an appealing, vibraphone-tinged ballad that sounds much closer to his 2005 solo album "TheFutureEmbrace" than his "Siamese Dream" heyday. This is what's too bad about "Zeitgeist." By attempting to recreate the smashing success of the Pumpkins of old, Corgan is missing the opportunity to present perfectly good ideas that are naturally closer to where he is artistically. In "Cut Your Hair," a 1994 single from the band Pavement (whose singer Stephen Malkmus memorably dissed Corgan's band in another track), Malkmus sings "Songs mean a lot, when songs are bought." Ironically, Corgan's worldview seems to hew to the lyrics of his former nemesis, and his fans are bound to suffer for it.