Sunday, February 13, 2011

Corganwatch: The Name of the Pose

When I was in primary school, the principal for several years was a woman named Claire Coburn. She was an ebullient woman given to joining the younger children in games, which disgusted us older children but which they seemed to enjoy. After about two years, she gathered the school's pupils before her and announced that we had shown great maturity in her time with us, and that she was now ready to be called by her true name: Claire Cockburn.

If you like the idea of concept albums but don't couldn't eat a whole one, you could do far worse than the Thirty-Three EP. Six songs where only the title track is filler, the disc starts with Billy Corgan singing from the perspective of a very human Christ contemplating His own crucifixion and only gets more navelgazey from there. Positioning itself as a series of transitional moments which, laid end to end, form a graceful coda to the Mellon Collie era (and, it was widely assumed at the time, the Smashing Pumpkins project itself), the EP's work in the manipulation of time, personal identity and musical character cannot be underestimated. Which is pretty good for a disc you could listen to in the time it took to get ready for your supermarket job (if you were me when the record came out).

While Thirty-Three itself may be fairly second-rate as actual songs go (divorced from the album, its attempt to infuse the Twilight to Starlight half of the record with playful Beatles silliness just becomes doubly cloying), it does its work in establishing the EP's elegiac tone. Again, if you start with the notion that Billy Corgan is going to be portraying Jesus in His final days (besides the obvious, the title refers to Corgan's age at the imminent Millennium), it's fairly easy to work out where things might be going. Four songs, each themed for a different member of the band[1], explore themes of transition, finality and reconciliation before the twee-as-you-please My Blue Heaven rolls elegant end credits[2].

The Airplane Flies High (Turns Left, Looks Right) is Corgan's bitter farewell to Jimmy Chamberlin, a "fragile heart so cursed" whose broken promises caused the heartache that would drive Corgan through the doldrums between the death of Jonathan Melvoin and the eventual Machina (it's also, if this needs restating, one of the best songs Corgan has ever written).

Transformer is Billy's attempt to get inside the head of a D'Arcy who obviously no longer had much time for the band; while it paints a fairly charming picture of the bassist, its thesis seems to be that D'Arcy doesn't exist except as a member of the Smashing Pumpkins, and that as such, it sure must be awful hard for her to be growing dissatisfied with the venture[4]. The Bells is James Iha's nice little song about going back to church; shortly following the song's release, he would express public concern about Billy becoming friends with Marilyn Manson.

The other song is the second explicitly Billy-themed riff on departure and reconciliation, The Last Song[5]. What transforms The Last Song from an okay song by Billy Corgan during the Mellon Collie era (which is to say, one of the hundred-odd best songs of the mid-to-late 90s) into a truly meaningful entry into the Pumpkins canon is the singer's choice of backup musician. If you're going to sing a song about how you've done good work and now it's time to go home, that is fine; if you're going to end an era marked by songs about how hard your parents made your life, and you're going to do it with a song where jazz guitarist William Corgan Sr [6] underscores your homeward walk with quietly assured soloing that's a bit like your own licks, just a little older and sweeter... well, it is unlikely that the reader will require an in-depth explanation of why this is relevant.

"William Corgan," then, becomes a sort of magical True Name, a seldom-invoked reference to who the singer "truly is" when all the hurlyburly's done and the Father has been Reconciled With. Last week, Billy announced that "William Corgan" would henceforth be the name he would be working under. Corgan had made peace with who he truly was and where he truly came from, and was ready to start garnering the same direct, unadulterated adoration bestowed on Johnny Cougar or D'Arcy Wretzky.

The Thirty-Three EP is probably, next to his other work of the era, the closest in musical tone to Corgan's current album, Teargarden by Kaleidoscope. A recent entry into that project had the respect to address me without being so forward as to call me Thomas; so I guess I have to be, for the time being, in favor.

Claire Cockburn left the school not too long after making her announcement, and we laughed at her a great deal. We were, after all, kids; but come on, it was a pretty silly speech to make.

[1] Billy gets two songs, either (a) because he's Billy or (b) because Thirty-Three isn't really a Billy song so much as a Billy-as-Christ song, which is basically just (a) writ large.
[2] The song's elegance is marred only by a Samuel-L-Jackson-in-a-Marvel-movie peek at that rising star of the Adore era, the "Melancholic Elmer Fudd" style of singing that Billy would inexplicably drop into otherwise good [3] songs.
[3] Obviously I am joking about Annie-Dog being otherwise good.
[4] Apparently being a spunky girl defined by the Smashing Pumpkins is a prerequisite: new bassist Nicole Fiorentino first appeared on the cover of Siamese Dream. No Smashing Pumpkins bassist has ever had a penis.
[5] Which is always positioned before several other songs, to make sure you know that it's not
actually the last song, not in that way anyway.
[6] Biggest prior public accomplishment: turning down a spot in a band who would later hire Ted Nugent.