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The Smashing Pumpkins’ MACHINA/The Machines of God is Underrated

Intro: The Year 2000
2000 was a pivotal year. It would have seemed like a cliché to say that at the time, given the hysteria about Y2K and the number of people who thought that they were witnessing the arrival of a new millennium (that wouldn’t happen till the next year). But like a fine aged Kentucky bourbon, 2000 becomes bolder,  more sepia-toned and more important as the years pile up

As if it were aware of its own status as the closer of the 20th century, the year arguably represented the last hurrah for what digital dualists call the “analog” world. Blockbuster made $800 million on late fees, demonstrating the ludicrous high-water mark of pre-Netflix physical media rentals. CD sales (the CD is actually a “digital” medium, which I think causes real issues for all the digital/analog nonsense) were largely unimpacted by Napster or piracy, if only because people hadn’t lapsed into comas of convenience supported by broadband telecom networking. The U.S. presidential election was largely free of Nate Silver-grade analysis. The World Trade Center was still standing.

In February 2000, The Smashing Pumpkins attempted a dramatic “return to rock” by releasing MACHINA/The Machines of God. The band had spent the previous three years in turmoil, following the death of touring keyboardists Jonathan Melvoin and the ejection of drummer Jimmy Chamberlain from the lineup. Frontman Billy Corgan, bassist D’Arcy Wretzky, and guitarist James Iha churned out the dreary, boring Adore in the summer of 1998. The record showed the bands taking the absence of Chamberlain’s drumming far too literally – its songs were filled with watery electronic textures, drum machines, and songs about people named Sheilia. Two years later, Radiohead would do much the same thing with the grossly overrated Kid A and receive ludicrous acclaim for doing so.

Chamberlain returned to the fold for MACHINA, although his return coincided with the departure of Wretzky and her replacement by Hole’s Melissa Auf Der Maur. Still, the Pumpkins were never really a “band” in the conventional sense – it’s hard to know how much Wretzky and Iha did on record aside from their obvious contributions to 1995’s Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness, and one is tempted to regard the Pumpkins as a good idea for a band, with an Asian-American guitarist, blonde female bassist, white guy drummer, and androgynous bald frontman, when in fact only Corgan and Chamberlain really drove their sound.

The Pumpkins had always been a commercially successful band. Even Adore went platinum. But MACHINA was entering into a very different record market – one characterized by the rise of Eminem (and the broader shift from rock to rap as the public’s music franca), and the peak of physical record dominance. Thirteen years later, it’s amazing to see how conscious MACHINA was of its own era.

What does it mean to try hard?
The Smashing Pumpkins obviously worked hard. Corgan’s prolificness resulted in monstrosities like Mellon Collie and endless b-side compilations and box sets. Their shortest album (Gish) was still 45 minutes long, revealing the band’s odd place among the scores of punk-influenced contemporaries such as Nirvana and the Pixies. With the exception of Adore, the Pumpkins were also very much a guitar-driven band. Peak period records such as Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie exhibited the band contorting the guitar into new possibilities, ranging from Loveless-style walls of sound to something that prefaced the impending scourge of nu-metal.

MACHINA is a much-maligned record that did not sell well. It barely went gold and any legacy it might have created evaporated once the band broke up in late 2000/early 2001 (they have since reunited, but they current band has nothing in common with the classic years). But its lyrical and topical concerns reveal much greater depth than any other Pumpkins record, and its sentiments are as good a chronicle of the music landscape in 2000 as anything.

Take “I of the Mourning,” one of the record’s singles and part of its excellent opening six. Corgan mentions “blowing the dust off my guitar” to show that he’s getting back to work, as if the electronic stew of Adore was just studio goofery/lazing, or something that occurred inside his head (“I’ve just been living in my head,” he recounts in opener “The Everlasting Gaze”). Moreover, he’s expecting his radio to play his “favorite song,” in what now feels like a downright ancient paean to the curatorial, particulars powers of radio DJs to play likable songs. Post-Napster, post-iPod, post-whatever, radio is now just dreck built upon a junk heap of “big data” and asking anyone to play your favorite song will only get you the audio equivalent of Netflix’s “House of Cards.” MACHINA lives in a world in which there is still discernible, distinct labor functions for human beings in the music business: the artist as manual instrument player, and the radio DJ as the middle man in the taste making business.

The record’s treatment of labor and effort shows up in its sonic palette, too. The guitars are aggressively mixed, and the drum work ranks with Chamberlin’s best (just listen to those fills on “Stand Inside Your Love”). But it’s not a complete back-to-rock affair. Pitchfork may have been off the mark is saying that it was thoroughly “marinated” in synthesizer, but the electronic trappings of Adore (and tbh, of Mellon Collie, which began the Pumpkins’ branching off into keyboards) are still here.

“The Sacred and the Profane,” “The Crying Tree of Mercury,” and “Blue Skies Bring Tears” all have that distinctive late 80s Cure vibe that is right at the edge of minor-key guitar and synthesizer. The crunch of “The Everlasting Gaze” wouldn’t be out of place on an EDM record, and just listen to the syncopations of “Raindrops + Sunshowers” – it begs to be compared to Duran Duran, and Corgan removes any doubt by quoting “Save a Prayer.” This record has techno – or more precisely, robots – on the brain, even as it tries to rock out, and for all of its humanistic posturing, it ends up taking the position of acquiescing to electronica’s spell.

To get a better glimpse of how deeply MACHINA cares about the effects of automation, robots, and the removal of human labor from music, just look at the neat lyrical bridge that connects “The Everlasting Gaze” and the admittedly awful “Heavy Metal Machine” (which is one of the record’s few weak points). In the former, Corgan proclaims that “you know I’m not dead,” but in the latter he asks “if I were dead, would my records still sell?”

Wondering about the alive/dead status of the Pumpkins’ members is hardly a front and center concern for the listener – it isn’t even the case for bands such as Nirvana whose music now survives saddled with the baggage of dead members. So why is Corgan fixated on it? Because he’s wondering if all this effort will be for naught – that the return to guitars, the dramatic reentry after a half-decade of drug/death/electronica-induced malaise will fail. The fictional band that is the backbone of the record’s loose theme will live on, like deathless robots, but will they fail without their human creators?

Success from failure
And the record did fail, in a way. MACHINA didn’t sell and isn’t well-regarded, a point driven home by the almost instantaneous follow-up of MACHINA II, a cobbled-together set of demo-quality songs from the same sessions (e.g., there’s an inferior version of “Speed Kills,” the marvelous number included on the vinyl and international editions of the first MACHINA). But the record tried; it even has a song called “Try, Try, Try,” for christsake.

The first six numbers are a delight before the listener hits the temporary wall of “Heavy Metal Machine.” Even after that, gorgeous numbers like “This Time,” “The Age of Innocence,” and “With Every Light” showoff a maturity and range that simply doesn’t show up in the one-note (not literally; and it is a good “note,” admittedly) Siamese Dream or the hard-to-digest Mellon Collie.

I haven’t listened to anything the band recorded after Zeitgeist, itself hardly a great record. But when I go back to the catalog, I often start with MACHINA since it’s intellectually dense and provocative even 13 years later – the perfect artifact for overqualified humanistic nerds.

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