Smashing Pumpkins – Atum (Pt. 1) (2022)

Atum: A Rock Opera in Three Acts by the artist The Smashing Pumpkins
Fair Dealing/Fair Use

A friend and I, in an effort to broaden our musical appreciation, agreed to listen to and review albums we would never normally listen to. Due to the effort this involved, the scope broadened after a short while to intermittently include those albums that we would normally listen to (mostly new releases). Those albums which we would not normally listen to were selected at random from the book 1001 Albums You Must Listen to Before You Die, a book that I would not recommend.

The reviews were never intended to be published in any way but may bring some enjoyment to the fair folk of this parish. 

How many bands are there that, when they announce a space-odyssey three-act album extravaganza, fans and critics alike do not automatically roll their eyes and fob it off as a vanity project of Caligula-level self-indulgence? Let’s be honest: few. Smashing Pumpkins is one of those few. Glossing over the fact it’s released on Billy Corgan’s own label though and acknowledge the reason SP are in a position to even self-release such a project in the first place is for the continued commercial success of some of the most compelling and respected records of the 90s, it’s already an achievement. If that didn’t come with some expectation for their twelfth album, then how about billing it as the sequel to Mellon Collie… Marketing ploy, perhaps; but either way, there’s a hella lot of expectation before the needle even touches the plastic. If there’s any man alive that can pull off a vanity project of this scale though, it’s Will C.

Well without any further ado: to the music.

Mention the album’s subtitle (A Rock Opera in Three Acts) and they’ll probably expect John Steinman-sounding ten-minute epics or Kiss-era glam rock cheese (only two of the initial 11 tracks clock in longer than four minutes).  But it isn’t that at all: it’s soaring; it’s celestial; it’s string- and synth-driven soundscapes with pearlescent twinkly stars. There’s drama aplenty with driving percussion and soft melodic instrumentals. It is bold without a doubt. And, you know what, it almost mostly succeeds in delivering what it promises. But is that enough?

At times it falls down to literalism, such as the blips and bleeps introducing The Good in Goodbye but it’s overall used sparingly rather than liberally and just about gets away with it. The 80s-synth on Embracer has a somewhat cliched ‘adventure’ sound to it, similar to TV theme montage of a space traveller overcoming some odds. Steps in Time comes the closest to any clichéd ‘rock opera’ sound with 80s guitar-sounding solos. Fortunately there’s enough else going on in the background to carry it.

Credit where credit is due the album is thoughtfully paced. Five tracks in (With Ado I Do) the distortion is turned up and percussion injects more energy to save from potential flagging with soft piano chords to stop it becoming too grating. Following with Hooligan, another synth-opener, it’s possibly the most Melon Collie…sounding track with that specific SP-guitar tone.

Corgan’s voice is faultless. It hasn’t aged a day. Everything is still there: that ethereal female-sounding drawl with the elongated vowels drawn out to the point the lyric loses diction. It suits the album.

The eleven tracks of this initial ‘Act’, then, certainly succeed in delivering a ‘Rock opera’ of a fictitious space-bound character. It’s a consistent album, and stands up on its own as a solid attempt. But it lacks the punch of single-quality songs or, to put it plainly, where are the Hummers, Zeros, Bullets with Butterfly Wings and Todays?

By tracks 08, 09 and 10 it’s treading old ground and offers little else to the listener. (The less said about Hooray the better). It’s a real shame if truth be told. Each track is probably a consistent 5-6/10. They could probably all be placed in any order and it’d work as an album. Without any stand-out tracks to wrench the attention back it’s lost amongst itself: lost in an orbit of its own making with the fictitious celestial star traveller tossing it off in the mirror of his space capsule commending himself on his own brilliance…

But then again this is a Billy Corgan offering, so we probably shouldn’t have expected much else.

© Cromwell’s Codpiece 2024