Billy Corgan tried fan service on the Smashing Pumpkins’ last album, 2018’s Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 — which saw the reunion of three-quarters of the band’s grunge glory-days lineup — but he must have decided half-hearted nostalgia wasn’t worth the hassle after the record got a tepid response.
The Pumpkins’ latest, Cyr, features the same lineup as Shiny and Oh So Bright, but it feels more like a Corgan solo album. The principal Pumpkin produced the record himself and wrote all of its songs, which the band played mostly on synthesizers. But rather than a through-line back to the Pumpkins’ trip-hoppy Adore, Cyr often sounds like Corgan was going for a new-wave sound that recalls Talk Talk, and unfortunately he has neither the singular vision he had in the Nineties nor the melodic savvy of Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis to pull it off. Instead, most of the songs, all filled with neo-goth romantic lyrics, stumble and fumble over meandering melodies with no sing-along choruses to buttress them. It’s Steampunk Billy trying to navigate his way through his own gauzy ether.
Aside from the distinctive, un-Pumpkinness of it all, Corgan has gilded the songs with distractingly highfalutin, Victorian-era three-dollar words, which would make it difficult to sing along, even if the songs were catchy. Pop quiz: Is “For inamorata and swan-like swain/For valentine and twinning flame/On whiff of pain and cross/Your cedar burns, aflame” a lost verse from Lewis Carroll’s slithy poem “Jabberwocky” or a sing-speak line from Cyr’s second song, “Confessions of a Dopamine Addict”? It’s hard to tell. Elsewhere, he mispronounces the Gaelic word “Samhain” in a way that would make his old MTV Buzz Bin buddy Glenn Danzig wince (“Wyttch”) and he fills three minutes of “The Hidden Sun” with references to Oliver Twist, Aesop, templar thieves, and dauphines. It’s a lot to take in, especially within the confines of the general mechanical sound of the record, which buries the drum work of Jimmy Chamberlin, one of the alt-rock era’s greatest stickmen, with electronic percussion.
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Despite the speed bumps, Corgan came up with a few songs that shine oh so bright through the fog. He stumbled on a decent disco approach that turns his bleat around on “Adrennalynne,” and “Ramona” is a bit like Corgan’s synth-pop take on the Stones’ “Angie,” as he asks, “Ain’t it like our dreams?” The latter song has the best and catchiest chorus on the album, but it is buried in between so many of Cyr’s other frights of fancy that it gets lost in the fray.
With no rage and no cage, the rat is finally free. He just doesn’t know what to do with himself.
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