By Mark Guarino
Solitude — good or bad?
Billy Corgan knows, chucking Zwan after chucking the Smashing Pumpkins. The collaborators he ultimately embraces on “The Future Embrace” (Warner Bros.), his first solo album in stores Tuesday, are machines. Their marriage together is, no surprise, dense and cold, but to Corgan, life alone twisting knobs is sort of a relief: “There’s no one there but failed soldiers … I play chess from both sides now/there’s no regrets.”
“The Future Embrace” is also a sort of stylistic marriage. If you combine the metal machine crunch of the Pumpkins’ career kiss-off “Machina/The Machines of God” plus the upbeat swoon of Zwan, you’ll have these 12 songs. But unlike both albums, don’t expect any rallying anthems of either rage (Pumpkins) or bliss (Zwan). Instead, these are what you’d expect when a frontman goes solo: quiet introspection, harmony and solace. The disappointments come when the self-absorption becomes just as murky, submerged inside the studio swamp.
Taking a one-man stand at age 38, Corgan gets referential to his past. Teenage heroes New Order, Depeche Mode and The Cure are heavy influences, heard on “Future’s” brightest spots with big dance beats and romantic goth overtures. Although menacing with sludgy guitars and buzzing synthesizers, “A100” comes alive through its booming kick drum effect, a house music staple. Digital beeps and squeaks quicken the pulse of “The CameraEye,” but not as much as its throbbing bass. The ‘80s techno programming gets further heightened on the Bee Gees cover “To Love Somebody” through a cameo from Robert Smith of The Cure, but his vocals are ultimately lost inside the bleeding distortion — a disco trapped inside a factory.
As much as Corgan is known for his guitar power, from the psychedelic fury of the early Pumpkins days to the glorious grandeur of Zwan, guitars are mostly put on mute here. They’re ushered into the background clatter, processed in with sheets of synthesizers and fizzy computer beats, helped driven home by industrial noise godfather Bon Harris of Nitzer Ebb. Together they create a template that tends to make these songs, most mid-tempo ballads, sound similarly somber and steely. As much as he’s been enlisted to help kickstart the songwriting muse for people ranging from Courtney Love to Lisa Marie Presley, Corgan can’t find a hook. The melodies are often too feeble. On “Sorrows (in blue),” you can hear the patches of different ideas crammed together with no real cohesion. Density can be a strength for any studio genius, but too often on “Future,” it feels like overwhelming and a substitute for simple melody.
Despite recent internet ravings against former bandmates and a solo acoustic show inspired by Chicago history, the lyrics are non-specific and wander into self-help jargon (“who needs pain to survive?/I need pain to change my life”). Their preoccupation with themes of idyllic love and rebirth don’t fit what is an abrasive-sounding album. Only the paranoia of “Mina Loy (M.O.H.)” — “it’s plain the wars have won/the days of judgment rise,” he sings — feels suited to the layers of boiling guitars and hammering beats.
Former Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin arrives to cameo on “DIA” but even his able skills feel underutilized. Not so long ago, Corgan was mocked for fronting bands that were more or less solo projects. So it’s ironic then that, on this transitional album, all that’s missing to light his fire is a proper band dynamic. Someone to kick around, someone to be a muse, it doesn’t matter — just someone please push this Pumpkin’s buttons.