The choice to roll out the Smashing Pumpkins’ new album over a number of months was a smart one. The primary act of ATUM: A Rock Opera in Three Acts was launched all the best way again in November 2022, whereas Act Two adopted in January and Act Three arrived simply final week. For many followers, all that new music could be greater than sufficient. For the actually engaged, although, Billy Corgan additionally hosted a weekly podcast known as Thirty-Three through which he premiered and dissected every tune. That’s proper: ATUM spans 33 tracks totalling two hours and twenty minutes. It’s billed as a sequel to 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Unhappiness and 2000’s Machina/The Machines of God, but it surely’s additionally a trilogy in its personal proper. You need to hand it to the true defenders of the uncool for tackling a 33-track area opera within the yr 2023, however you’d should be loopy to take it in abruptly, which is why that launch technique made sense. And but, “loopy” being a greater descriptor of my disposition than “devoted Smashing Pumpkins fan,” that’s precisely what I did.
Except you need to spend an additional hour in Corgan’s firm for every 3-5 minute tune that you just hear (there are some longer ones, however we’ll get to them), the narrative arc of ATUM will most likely slip by you. It continues the story of Shiny, the principle character who first appeared on Mellon Collie, and it begins with him being exiled in area. It’s not precisely a metaphor for Corgan and the band’s trajectory but it surely’s additionally not not about him. It’s self-aware however not in a approach that forces you to take part in no matter narrativizing is happening, which, once more, is wise optics. Even for these prepared to sit down via your entire album, it’s type of designed in a approach that means that you can dismiss that entire side of it. “It’s truly hard-baked in there that I’d assume that most individuals received’t comply with the story,” Corgan mentioned in an interview with Rolling Stone. (He additionally famous that his bandmates initially responded to the idea with “a giant shrug.”)
If there’s a central conceit to ATUM, it’s not the driving power behind it. So what’s? It’s laborious to inform, which is among the album’s largest weaknesses; it usually appears like Corgan is throwing 1,000,000 concepts on the wall and seeing what sticks, or which songs stick higher collectively. The ambition is all the time there, however not all the time the inspiration or follow-through. Although it’s way more guitar-driven and conceptually centered than its predecessor, 2020’s CYR, it suffers from the identical downside of being merely serviceable even when it takes some dangers. It’s simply that ATUM tries much more issues and pulls from a wider vary of influences, so now we get an album that varies extra in high quality and model.
One may most likely make the case that there’s a optimistic development all through the three acts, however every part nonetheless looks like a combined bag. Act One units the tone by easing us into the theatrical scope of the album with a set of songs which are completely different however not precisely dynamic, simple however not significantly catchy or impactful. Vaguely alluding to ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’, ‘Butterfly Suite’ disappoints by having an excessive amount of sparkle and little resonance, whereas ‘When the Rain Should Fall’ is a romantic ballad with all of the craving stifled. You get the sense that the band is prepared to let extra mild into their sound however falls in need of materializing it: ‘Hooray!’ is goofy in a approach which may translate should you’re truly watching the band carry out it, whereas the radio-friendly ‘Past the Vale’ – an early signal that the heaviest tracks on ATUM depend on chugging greater than precise riffs – finally ends up sounding reasonably nameless. In contrast, songs like ‘The Gold Masks’, which concludes Act One, and ‘Avalanche’, which kicks off the following one, glisten with actual conviction, from Corgan’s honest supply to a shocking solo from James Iha on the latter.
One of many synthier cuts on ATUM, ‘With Ado I Do’, is definitely richer and extra affecting than quite a lot of the songs on CYR. However even after they return to a extra acquainted rock sound, the album is simply too usually marked by the identical robotic manufacturing that hindered that album. Whereas ‘Neophyte’ achieves the anticipated grandeur, its repetitiveness turns into cloying; ‘Beguiled’ is a high-quality single, but it surely surprisingly lacks the trace of weirdness that may set it aside (‘Empires’ does the no-frills rock factor a lot better). Happily, Act Three serves as LP’s most spirited and adventurous stretch, with each of the 8-plus-minute tracks providing sufficient to maintain you engaged even when you’ve got no funding within the album’s lore. The band even pulls off a good experiment in power-pop with ‘Spellbinding’, which proves they will take the lighthearted synthpop route with out sounding too uninteresting. Total, the unusual thrill you may get from listening to the Smashing Pumpkins isn’t completely absent on ATUM, however generally it felt like I may get the identical feeling simply by seeing Billy Corgan react to Yeat and save myself a few hours. Dig via the muck, although, and also you’ll discover the components that shine.