Ogilala is the infuriatingly-named third 1 album from former Smashing Pumpkins singer/songwriter/guitarist Billy Corgan, temporarily (he has sinced gone back to the diminutive) operating under his full name, William Patrick Corgan, which I can only imagine is because he’s already assuming that anyone who hears it is going to want to call him by his full name, disapproving-mother style.
Billy Corgan used to be great. He wrote a bunch of great songs that he played great guitar parts over. If the Smashing Pumpkins were never much of a band in the studio as such 2
All of which is to say, William Patrick Corgan had, to all available evidence, run out of steam. And that means that as much as this is inexorably the work of Billy Corgan himself, it is also necessary to discuss the role of Rick Rubin.
For the last twenty-odd years, Rick Rubin’s name has meant, in certain contexts 3, come to mean “a return to simplistic, authenticity-based music”. The genesis of this reputation comes from his career-reviving work with Johnny Cash through the nineties, in which Rubin cleared the table of Cash’s gospel and weirdly-directed 4 eighties material, and recast Cash as the authoritative voice of country authenticity, shepherding him through a series of cover songs (including, perhaps most famously, Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”) and occasional duets (with Nick Cave, Will Oldham – on one of Will’s own songs, even – and Tom Petty, among others). The results speak for themselves: the alchemical nature of the often left-field song choices and the impressive performances by Cash gave the songs a bit more gravity, and the great man himself a bit more traction to listeners that might have been turned off by the weird, meandering course of his discography.
The transformation for Cash was so effective that Rubin has had several opportunities to do the same for other artists, with mixed returns. Almost immediately after the American Recordings series got started, the ol’ hurdy-gurdy man himself, Donovan, came a-knocking, and the resultant album pretty well failed to bring anything back from anywhere. A decade after American Recordings, Rubin produced Yusuf’s 5 album Tell ‘Em I’m Gone, which did manage to get some acclaim and bring the former Cat into the public eye, and also featured some nice work by Richard Thompson. Neither, however, was enough to eliminate the perception in the eyes of the public that going to Rick Rubin was a good way to lend some Serious Artist context to your new project.
And so, while Billy Corgan is hardly the same sort of elderly, time-shifted, somehow-overlooked statesman, this is the context into which he is permitting this album to exist. While it’s only been twenty or so years since his chart dominance, he has become much more noticed 6 for his non-musical business: he’s a basketcase, obviously, but he’s a basketcase that opened a tea house, and appears on Alex Jones regularly to let the world know just how many baskets he has in his case. He wrote for and eventually bought a professional wrestling league of some description. He dated noted Nazi-enthusiast and fellow basketcase Tila Tequila. He generally did everything he could to make sure that it was as difficult as possible to muster up a single drop of goodwill for him.
This seems less like a new development for Corgan than a simple escalation of the behavior he’s pretty much always exhibited. He started his career claiming to already be above the late-eighties Chicago alternative (college rock, punk rock, whatever) scene 7, mostly as a way to justify lucking into a promoter that stuck them on every high-profile bill in town, and Corgan being willing to play ball with anything that would increase his record sales, as well as taking huge chunks of his band’s sound from the downstate Illinois scene, which in the museo-political environment of the time, combined to him not being a much-beloved Chicago figure. He would go on, later to feud seemingly-constantly through the nineties.
And so, these many years later, it seems to make more sense to hook up with Rick Rubin to make a “stripped-down,” “back to basics,” “‘authenticity’-forward” album – the double quote marks on authenticity are necessary because there’s nothing actually authentic about it – the records that Rubin makes, even when they’re good, are still a study in play-acting authenticity – signifying “truth” and “honesty” and “realness” – by setting everything up, and without actually representing an authentic document of anyone’s artistic impulses without first covering it in several layers of cred-seeking window dressing. But then, that’s also Corgan’s thing. When he made great music, it was also through several layers of performative rock-star posing 8, so changing the gloss over the whole works would, theoretically, enable him to maintain the distance he clearly needs to create from his material in order for it to work.
Thus the whole thing wasn’t necessarily set against Corgan from the get-go, and might have even worked, if it weren’t for the actual fact of the matter. To wit: Billy Corgan’s voice is a hard sell 9, and without the guitar trickery and bigger-than-big arrangements, that’s pretty much what we’re left with on Ogilala.
Even if the album had been sung by a literal angel, it would still have to contend with the fact that it was written by someone whose inspiration seemed to flee from him long ago. Even the songs that have some life to them – the terribly-titled “Half-LIfe of an Autodidact”, the pleasant “Antietam” – sound basically like all the other songs on the album, just slightly better. I suppose the best case scenario here would have been an album of thirteen new songs that sound like “Disarm,” the mega-hit Smashing Pumpkins song that most closely resembles a stripped-down acoustic number.
But “Disarm” was still a huge, sweeping song, with layered guitars and strings and all sorts of bombast, and the bombast was a big part of the appeal. Billy Corgan doesn’t write subtle, thoughtful music for the background of whatever you’re doing. Or, well, as this album proves, he does, but he definitely shouldn’t.
In a lot of ways, the problems with this album are in line with another high profile Rick-Rubin-associated failure to come back 10, Neil Diamond’s 12 Songs and Home Before Dark. Diamond’s intransigent Diamond-ness proves to be too much for Rubin’s “authenticity”-focused “production,” and the end result (especially in the case of 12 Songs) is something that fails to be a Neil Diamond record, but also proves that Neil Diamond can’t be anything else 11. As a result, the album failed to be the comeback that was perhaps being tried-for, and succeeded as being an object lesson in Neil Diamond’s ability to perform under in a new context.
Billy Corgan, then, is no Neil Diamond. Where Diamond adapted his approach to meet the sheer fact that he can’t do the sorts of things that Rubin did with Johnny Cash, Corgan doesn’t have the ability to mold himself into anything. Where Diamond’s approach was unassailable due to his own decades of being a very specific performer, and spending most of that time writing songs that were fluid enough to be sung by pretty much anyone 12, Corgan has really only ever written songs for himself, and has spent the last twenty years 13 applying his talents to contexts that aren’t really where he’s best-suited.
And so Ogilala is, far from the revitalized, re-contextualized celebration of his “pure,” “raw” “songwriting” “talent”, just another stop on the string of weird, dumb albums that Billy Corgan seems to feel compelled to make.
So who the fuck listens to this? I suppose Billy Corgan die-hards. Maybe there are Rick Rubin fans, I guess? I can’t imagine that’s true, but it might be. I really have no idea. If you are the sort of person to whom “acoustic, downtempo Billy Corgan album that’s mostly piano” sounds like a good time, feel free to let me know why, and also be advised that it’s still pretty bad, even for all that.
- Well, kind of third – his only other “official” solo album is the also infuriatingly-named TheFutureEmbrace, but he released a “tea house and/or one record store in Chicago” record called AEGEA as a publicity stunt a couple of years ago. ↩
- their records were famously never really the product of a band playing songs together, and there’s not much to be said for their live shows that I’ve ever heard – I’m sure they were good enough at one point to win people over, but it wasn’t a very long period of the band’s existence. – their albums were (with the exception of the first one) largely all-Billy affairs, with Corgan taking over most of the instrumental duties due to his studio-borne perfectionism. Unfortunately, he appeared to run out of ideas well before he actually hung up his hat – there are people who will defend late-period Smashing Pumpkins albums 14, but it’s largely the type of defence that grades the act on a steep curve. ↩
- alongside the stuff I’m going to talk about here, he’s also got his regular old “very famous record producer” career, which yields something like an album every eighteen months or so, and is largely outside the scope of what we’re talking about here. ↩
- the bad kind of weird. The “why are you doing this?” kind of weird. ↩
- formerly Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens, nee Steven Georgiou ↩
- when he is, in fact, noticed at all ↩
- This would be the Chicago scene populated by the Wax Trax folks, Liz Phair, what would become the Jim O’Rourke/Tortoise improv jazz scene, and most importantly Touch & Go Records, the greatest record label to exist within my lifetime. ↩
- in this sense he had the most in common with his rough contemporaries in Oasis, or, for the absolute top-dollar best version of that sort of thing, The Jesus and Mary Chain, or Boris at their most normal. ↩
- for the first time in my life, while listening to Ogilala, I found myself wondering whether his singing voice – which has very little in common with his speaking voice – was a naturally-occurring phenomenon, or something that he developed as a way to be distinctive (or whatever – I can’t really speak to his motivation) onstage. Is he, in short, more of an Emo Phillips, making the best of a voice he can’t do much about, or a Bobcat Goldthwait, coming up with something abrasive to make some sort of point. ↩
- although in this case not necessarily an artistic failure, which Ogilala definitely is. ↩
- Home Before Dark fares a bit better, because it loosens up on the idea of “Spare” and “direct” and gives Neil back some strings and some big, swollen arrangements. ↩
- time spent as a professional songwriter is good for some things, after all, and not knowing who is actually going to be singing the thing you’re writing almost certainly necessitates that you leave your songs more open than someone who is only writing songs for themselves to perform. ↩
- basically since Adore, about which you can read more here. Also – there were other installments in the Stunt Listening series that I completely abandoned. I should get back to those. ↩
- there are somewhat fewer people who will defend the Zwan album, or TheFutureEmbrace, but I’m sure they’re out there somewhere. ↩