Melancholy and the Infinite Badness
Billy Corgan Blows It, But Dave Grohl Delivers

It’s been brought to my attention that Spin Magazine just published another of those lists I hate.

This one isn’t likely to get the same venomous reaction from me as the Rolling Stone lists of last year, in which the writers purported to rank the best albums and songs OF ALL TIME. Spin has limited theirs to the 100 best records of the last 20 years, something I’ve been tempted to do at one time or another. And I agree with their top choice, Radiohead’s OK Computer. I proclaimed it the best album of the past 20 years when it was released in 1997, and I haven’t heard anything as ambitious, melodic and brilliant since. (Not even from Radiohead, who tunneled up their own arses immediately thereafter.)

These lists are silly, of course, and only good to you if you like pointless arguing. I do, as long as it’s about the music and not about the cultural significance of same, which is my big pet peeve with these lists. And illustrating the point, as ever, is goddamn Nirvana at number three. You can read my earlier rant about Nevermind and its Jedi mind trick-like ability to convince otherwise knowledgeable critics that it’s, like, the best record ever here. I repeat myself too much as it is.

But Saint Cobain’s post-mortem ascendance to Rock God status brings up an interesting question. Suppose, just for a second, that it had been Billy Corgan and not Cobain who took his own life at the height of his popularity – say, in 1996, after Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, but before the unfortunate downslide of Adore and Machina. And suppose that Cobain had lived on, taking Nirvana through another three albums of diminishing quality and then launching a solo career that tarnished his legacy even further. Do you think Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie would be in Rolling Stone’s top three albums OF ALL TIME? ‘Cause I do.

I also think they’d deserve it more than Nevermind. Say what you will about Corgan, but he’s a talented guy, pulsing with vision, and when the Pumpkins were at the top of their game, they delivered. Even the 700 or so B-sides from Mellon Collie were pretty much terrific, and it’s a shame that he hasn’t hit a productive period like that since. Corgan will never attain Cobain status, simply because he went on past his cultural sell-by date, and had Cobain done the same thing, he would be nowhere near these lists.

The tragedy of Billy Corgan is that he still wants that level of adoration. He takes himself so deadly seriously that his posturing overshadows his genuine skill. I praised Zwan’s one album, Mary Star of the Sea, for not being the self-important solo record that Corgan could have released after the Pumpkins broke up. That record bounced along with a more carefree spirit, and it seemed to bode well for Billy’s big bald ego. Damned if I can remember a single song from it now, though, which puts it in the same company as the Pumpkins’ last efforts.

Zwan soon imploded, and Corgan seems to have taken it personally – witness his whining blog, which I refuse to link. He’s aired his dirty laundry, and taken out full-page ads begging the Pumpkins to reform. The latest chapter in his oddly public slide towards complete irrelevance is the solo album that Zwan blessedly delayed. It’s here now, it’s called TheFutureEmbrace, all one word, and it features Billy the Hairless Wonder on the front cover, doing some sort of dance with his hands. I’m sure it has some kind of Zen significance, some symbolism, but I can barely look at it without being creeped out. Something about his icy stare, his “aren’t I strange, yet brilliant” demeanor… it’s just freaky.

The cover art is, sadly, the most memorable thing about this record. The least successful thing about it is its sound: Corgan uses older synths, crappy electronic drum beats and over-reverbed guitars to approximate 1985 – odd for an album with the word “future” in its title. The drums blip and ping, and the synths would be neat if not for the endless swamp of monotone guitar noise over them. The whole thing is a badly mixed mess, and Corgan’s signature pinched whine doesn’t help matters. Only rarely does he break out of this template – closer “Strayz,” complete with “kewl” spelling, is actually a subdued whisper of an outro, and the best thing here.

The sound may have been interesting if Corgan had wrapped it around any good songs, but he’s failed on that front, too. I’ve listened to this thing three times, and looking over the track list, very few of these songs are coming to mind. “The Camera Eye” is perhaps the closest Corgan comes to crafting a melody here – the rest is just as dull as every song he’s written since Adore. Tempos mesh, the guitar drowns everything out, and it all sounds the same.

Corgan’s lyrics do nothing to aid the situation. In the booklet, seemingly random phrases have been printed in all caps, which only draws attention to their banality: “Can I give my old heart TO YOU?” “I need pain TO CHANGE MY LIFE.” “YOU ARE REAL TO ME.” It’s all so dismal, with nothing to emotionally connect you. It’s like strangely depressing static. Honestly, when the most clever line on your album is “On the ninth day God created shame,” you may want to give those lyrics another polish.

So we’ve got the melancholy, and now for the Infinite Badness. There is one song that sticks in the brain, because it’s so amazingly ill-advised that it sounds like a joke. Corgan does an echoed-out, totally serious version of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody,” with, of all people, Robert Smith on backing vocals. To say this is a low point for both singers is just obvious. The saddest thing of all is that, while this track is too stupid to entirely work, it’s probably the best thing here, because it’s the only one with a memorable melody. If the best song on your record is one that Michael Bolton has also covered, well… I don’t know what to say.

I can’t imagine any new artist getting a contract on the strength of this record – it’s only out in every record store in the country because its author is Billy Corgan. But somewhere around 1997, his songwriting skills just… vanished. He got by on ambition and clever marketing for a while, but even that is absent from TheFutureEmbrace. It’s the shortest album Corgan has delivered since the Pumpkins’ debut, Gish, and it’s still way too long. I don’t know what he was trying to do with this album, but unless he was going for a forgettable, artless disaster, he failed miserably.

But people forget the law of diminishing returns, and the fact that it happens to most artists over time. Most likely, it would have happened to Cobain, had he lived – Nirvana would have petered out, the culture would have moved on, and Kurt would have run out of zeitgeist to hold on to. Corgan’s fate could easily have been his, sliding into self-parody and redundancy, and no amount of idolization would have stopped it. Because we have so little of his output to judge, people assume everything Cobain did later would have meant what the three Nirvana albums mean to them now.

But people thought the same thing about Elton John, and Paul McCartney, and the Rolling Stones, and all have, over time, dimmed their own lights. Billy Corgan’s journey is not a new one, just a sad one. Part of the problem is that he bought into his own hype – Corgan obviously believed the Pumpkins meant something more than their music, and encouraged that belief, so now, when all we have are a bunch of songs on a record and no Church of Corgan in which to pray to them, they seem even less than they are. And when the next generation hears Nevermind, they’re going to wonder what the big deal was, and why Siamese Dream isn’t considered at least as important. Because music is music.

And here’s some blasphemy for you: I think Dave Grohl has the right idea. He gets a lot of undeserved flak for not being Kurt Cobain, but in his post-Nirvana career, Grohl has shown a healthy, easygoing attitude about his work. He knows it’s the songs, not the angsty, artsy posing that accompanies them, and he also knows that his songs are not the world’s greatest. He would not be surprised at all to note that none of the Foo Fighters albums appear on Spin’s list. He knows he’s not important, and doesn’t cultivate an image. He is what he is.

And the Foo Fighters are what they are – an occasionally very good rock band. They have made well-crafted records (The Colour and the Shape) and forgettable toss-offs (One By One), and with their latest, In Your Honor, they’re back to making good ones. It’s an 84-minute double record, mind you, but it’s one of the most unassuming double records you’ll ever hear. 20 songs, split up into loud and not-so-loud CDs, and no filler.

The first disc (the loud one) sounds like every other Foo Fighters record, only a bit better than anything since The Colour and the Shape. The title track kicks things off with an aggressive, near-thrash beat reminiscent of Grohl’s Probot project, but the melodies storm in with the next track, “No Way Back.” “Resolve” strums along effectively, and closer “End Over End” impresses with its circular refrain. Still, nothing here is too praiseworthy – it’s just decent, radio-ready rock, led by Grohl’s everyman voice. Even when he screams, he sounds like your next door neighbor, the one who started a band.

The second disc (the not-so-loud one) is better. Grohl whips out his chamber-pop influences on several tracks, tossing in strings and mandolins here and there, and turns in another set of reliably solid tunes that don’t need distortion to hide behind. He includes “Friend of a Friend,” a Nirvana-esque song he wrote while still with that band, but the other nine show how far he’s come since those days. Especially effective is “Over and Out,” a moody quicksand pit of a song that drags you down with it. Norah Jones joins in on the graceful “Virginia Moon,” and closer “Razor” spins a web of acoustics for a fine finish.

While the idea of an acoustic Foo Fighters album may seem odd, remember that Grohl came up with the ‘90s Seattle bands, and those guys did that sort of thing all the time. See Alice in Chains’ EPs, or even Nirvana’s appearance on MTV Unplugged. Nothing here is groundbreaking, and in fact the lyrics aren’t much better than Corgan’s, but they’re delivered with such a breezy weightlessness that you barely notice them. Dave Grohl knows what he does, and he knows why people respond to it. His work will never be revered, but it will be enjoyed, and that’s what matters to him. He has such a lack of ambition that when he achieves something moderately special, as he has on In Your Honor, it’s almost revelatory.

It’s a secret Grohl seems to instinctively grasp, while Corgan struggles with it. If you set yourself up as an Important Artist with Something to Say, you have to live up to it each time out. If you tie yourself to the identity and personality of the masses, you’re going to lose that identity and personality when the times change, and you’d better have some great, timeless work left in you. But if you walk out with nothing but a guitar and some well-made songs, and let people discover them, then you’ll be set.

Next week, a re-examination of the White Stripes.

See you in line Tuesday Morning.