Alas poor Yorick, a fellow of infinite sadness
FOR THE LAST hour and 13 minutes I have been pushing a bolder up the side of a mountain. That boulder is William Corgan's head and that mountain is Adore, the new double album by William's alternative-rock mega-group, the Smashing Pumpkins. My back aches like a Roman slave's as sweat pours off my forehead and into my eyes, nearly rendering me blind. Still, I press on. And as I heave my way further and further upward, I begin to find ways to ease the weight of my unenviable task. William's head, I discover, is bulbous, inflated really, with a full load of tortured poetry. If I navigate it just so--keeping his tender ears and crooked nose from becoming lodged in a pock or crag--I will soon reach the top. Then I will triumphantly launch William's pumpkin off the mountainside and into the prog-rock Valley of Bloat where it was meant to rot.
Will it land next to Ian Anderson's gourd at the foot of Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick? Or will it settle next to Rick Wakeman's shaggy skull in the shadow of Yes's Tales from Topographic Oceans? Who can tell? I like to envision Corgan's journey ending nestled alongside Peter Cetera's head at the base of Chicago at Carnegie Hall, the historic 1972 four-record live set by the Chicago-based progressive rock group of the same name.
No one really listens to Carnegie these days, but back when it hit the racks this classic gained notoriety both for the impressive number of cardboard inserts that buttressed its hefty box superstructure and the 10-minute drum-and-flute solos imbedded on the vinyl platters between them. What better companion could there be for William's work as it rides the crystal ship into obsolescence? Not only are Smashing Pumpkins like Chicago in that they are from Chicago. They're like Chicago in that they are Chicago, with Corgan's cyber-wisp bellowing replacing Peter Cetera's stoner-wimp meandering, and that all-pervasive tool of progressive rock in the late '90s, electronics!, standing in for its forebear's pan-fried flutes and Artie Shaw-in-Cambodia horn charts. Some things change, some things always progress the same.
Then again, maybe they don't. Throw on Adore and you'll quickly find that the Chicago of 1998 is a far gloomier place than the Chicago of 1972: Compare the past to a stroll down Michigan Avenue on the day after Thanksgiving, and the present to a bike trip through Cabrini Green at 4 a.m. In 1972, Peter C. arrived to mollify his dappled minions with faux-righteous salvos of post-hippie melioration (e.g., "We've gotta do it right/Within this system/Gonna take over/But within this system."). Today Billy C. bludgeons his legion followers with a lyricism of nil that unfurls a meaninglessness the original Chicago would have a hard time deciphering. "Twilight fades through blistered Avalon/The sky's cruel torch on aching autobahn/Into the uncertain divine/We scream into the last divide," William intones on Adore's "To Sheila." That's some long division, indeed.
The Chicago of today leaves me a little cold. This might be progress, but it's a hollow progress. Twenty-six years ago, millions of music lovers did wonderful things with Carnegie Hall. Balanced, albeit precariously, with the flaps opened, that box made a wonderful TV tray, those cardboard inserts excellent trivets. Some people--God bless their souls--even listened to it, using the music on the albums inside the box as a means to a hard-won aesthetic experience. Which is more than I will ever try to wrestle out of Adore, a CD that will serve as a decent coaster, and very little else. But then the old Chicago records already made great coasters, and Old Chicago already has all the coasters it can use. (Jon Dolan) CP
Smashing Pumpkins play a free show Friday, July 17, at Minneapolis's Block E across from the Target Center; call 330-0100.
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