Album Review: The Smashing Pumpkins – Cyr

[Sumerian Records; 2020]

Billy Corgan has never made a bad record in his entire life.

Yet, two decades after the dissolution of The Smashing Pumpkins (and their unlikely but inevitable resurrection in various forms and formations), there happens to be a subset of his fandom that categorically denies his 21st-century output the gratitude of optimistic evaluation. With no good reason.

Sure, maybe some of those records had flaws, found in the rushed, unfinished mixing of the wild and hard-hitting Zeitgeist, the oddly drawn-out release strategy of the psychedelic Teagrarden project, or the dry atmosphere and focal shifts in Oceania’s alignment. Yet they weren’t bad – in fact, many of them were really good, varied and risky releases. Even in his weakest moment, marked by the overtly clinical and softer pop-conduct of Monuments to an Elegy, Billy Corgan still possessed that spark of undeniable genius, even if in smaller dosage. Now, after re-assembling most of the Pumpkins’ original line-up and recapturing the vigor of his best days with 2018’s Shiny and Oh So Bright Vol. 1, the band has done what The Smashing Pumpkins always stood for: thrown a curveball. So, now that the opening salvo has assured we’ve gotten rid of the hardcore haters and Siamese Zombies, untangling Cyr should be an easy task, no?

Well, things aren’t all that easy. Cyr – pronounced ‘seer’, meaning lord or master and apparently stemming from a fourth century child martyr? – is a complex and complicated affair. At 20 songs and 72 minutes, it’s the longest project the Pumpkins have released in ages, and is seemingly the sequel to Shiny Vol. 1. For the most part, it’s a Human League-like synth-pop behemoth, rich in evocative, magickal lyricism, and functions as the soundtrack to their animated YouTube series In Ashes. In short: there’s more here than meets the superficial gaze of two eyes.

Musically, most of Cyr actually manages to sound a little fresher than Shiny Vol. 1. While James Iha’s guitars at times take a step back, the distinct drumming of Jimmy Chamberlain is felt throughout the album, even when it disguises itself as electronic-motorik beat. The invigorating bassline and distorted guitar of “The Colour of Love” match the synthesizer leads beautifully and the infectious melody make the track instantly memorable. “Confessions of a Dopamine Addict”’s veiled, metallic shoegaze is hypnotizing, while “Anno Satana” almost feels like a more esoteric take on a Queens of the Stone Age-type rock track. “Birch Grove” has an odd beauty to its layered fragility – perhaps also a nod to Chromatics’ “Shadow”, seeing as its use in Twin Peaks would demark a link to the town’s Glastonbury Grove. “Minerva” features one of Corgan’s most memorable pop melodies and is sure to stay with fans. But the highlight of the album could well be the menacing, acidic “Purple Blood” – a close cousin to Mellon Collie’s “Love” that feels entirely self-contained in its libidinal power.

Yet, the sonic approach of Cyr doesn’t work for every song. Corgan’s songwriting has always existed in two modi: the prevailing type, that is based on a thoroughly orchestrated song and uses his vocals another instrument (“Porcelina of the Vast Oceans”, “In My Body”, “A Song for a Son”, “United States”, “For Martha”) and the outliers, which have Corgan’s vocals lead and fashion the instruments around him. The latter can be found in songs like “Crestfallen”, “To Forgive”, “Sorrows (In Blue)” or “Here’s to the Atom Bomb”. Those are some of his and the Pumpkins’ best songs, but that’s due to the fact that they’re matched by intricate, evocative production choices that use the studio as an instrument, conjuring frail art-deco beauty and uncanny eeriness alike. Ever since around Oceania, that type of songwriting has become a little more prevalent in his work, while the production style has become more rigid, allowing for little ambience and reverb. Cyr‘s “Ramona”, “Dulcet in E”, “Haunted”, “Telegenix” and “Tyger, Tyger” don’t fully support the electronic structures they find themselves caked in – the stern dream-pop solemnity found on “To Sheila”, “Home”, “Strayz” or “In the Arms of Sleep” would have served them better.

If Cyr has an Achilles heel, it’s to be found in the production. Not that Corgan isn’t talented, but an additional producer could have provided a fresh take to some of those songs that would have benefitted them. And, at 20 tracks, the second half of the album does feel homogenic to a fault. There’s also the heavy but puzzling “Wyttch”, which plods along like a Black Sabbath parody and never fully coming into its own. “Adrennalynne” has a similar structure but with its synthetic sound actually manages to feel heavier – yet “Wyttch” is certain to find favor with those who dismiss the mostly-synthetic sound of the album.

Lyrically, Cyr finds Corgan delivering strong material throughout. “I’m down for bewitching chains / And cursed tower,” he sings on “Confessions of a Dopamine Addict”, “Can you feel the same? / Do the stars inked to my face / Staying once changed?” Tarot imagery abounds and the lyrics are rich in cross-references that construct a larger symbolist narrative impossible to grasp in a short week’s time. The sun also makes a recurring appearance, following Shiny Vol. 1’s use of Icarus-like imagery and songs like “Solara”. If read directly, maybe that’s a hint at Corgan adapting that tarot card’s character to his current, Phoenix-like stage persona?

And then there is In Ashes, the five-part YouTube series that re-connects with Corgan’s ambition of an animated retelling of Machina that was never finished. Aesthetically it’s eerily similar to its abandoned predecessor (maybe testing the waters for another unlikely resurrection?) and resembling Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s work in The Wicked + The Divine, In Ashes uses the image of a dystopian future’s power outage to expand on issues of bigoted tribalism, consumerist brainwashing, and cult-like cultural tendencies. The plot takes off when a multi-racial trio encounters three racist goons, quite clearly codified. They flee and overcome the bullies, but drugs only spawn trashy variants of Disney, Star Wars and narcissistic idolatry. Imagination is occupied by mass-produced iconography of the very companies that Corgan – a mischievous anarchist at heart – always vocally opposed, while a fascistoid cult leader celebrates right around the corner. Using the cyberpunk modus as a jumping off point to delve headfirst into a mix of societal critique and middle-eastern mysticism, Corgan unites Thelema with social media Zoomer imagery and does Horus fist-bump with Anubis, adding him to the now long list of sun references in this project.

When taken as a whole, Cyr provides the variety and daring nature always inherent to The Smashing Pumpkins, finally resulting in the modern pop album that Corgan has always longed for, while also opening the door for new storytelling possibilities with In Ashes. The electronic approach doesn’t work for every song, and a little more humanity and ambience would have been charming, but the appeal of the whole grows as nuances reveal themselves with repeated listens. But then, Shiny Vol. 3 already looms, as does a continuation of Mellon Collie and Machina. Where this will take Corgan is hard to say. A shoegaze-centric album has long been teased, and a recent interview with Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker provokes the question of how the Australian’s production style would fit a Smashing Pumpkins record. For the first time in years, it seems like the possibilities are refreshingly endless.