Billy Corgan isn't sure whether he's a lost soul or a potential messiah. His songs on the Smashing Pumpkins' fifth album, Machina: The Machines of God, are all about redemption, commercial and personal, and they deliberately scramble any distinctions among romance, rock stardom and religion. With chutzpah or reverence, the band has even redrawn its logo, with the S and P next to an honest-to-Jesus cross. "Send the bored/Your restless/The feedback-scarred/Devotionless/You're all a part of me now," he intones in "Sacred and Profane," as if being one with God might make him the biggest star of all.
At first hearing, Machina comes across as a rebound album. Adore, the Pumpkins' 1998 record, was the kind of dud that every major band seems to need: A big, wrongheaded project, repudiated by all but diehard fans, the dud — like U2's Rattle and Hum or Pearl Jam's No Code — proves that a band is following artistic impulses. In the end, it provides liposuction for a band's bloated self-esteem.
In the mid-Nineties, when the Smashing Pumpkins became Lollapalooza-festival headliners and arena rockers, Corgan emerged as a bundle of fascinating contradictions: high-minded and cynical, humble and grandiose, earthbound and spaced-out. With a nasal, twerpy voice and a gawky presence, he was a frontman that only alternative rock could love, a nerdy guy whose alt-ego happened to be a ferocious guitarist.
But on Adore, Corgan sank sturdy melodies with lifeless rhythms, inscrutable lyrics and keyboard abuse. And instead of venting an inconsolable fury that adolescents could appreciate — "Despite all my rage, I'm still just a rat in a cage," Corgan had yowled in 1995 — he was now preaching about love and prayer, which weren't as much fun.
The band's drummer, Jimmy Chamberlin, was fired for drug problems; he came back rehabilitated, but bassist D'Arcy quit, to be replaced eventually by Melissa Auf der Maur from Hole. Corgan, meanwhile, clearly set out to make Machina the anti-Adore. He rehired Flood, who had co-produced Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and he set out to keep things simple. The saw-toothed guitar riff and big beat that open Machina's first song, "Everlasting Gaze," are unironic signals that the Smashing Pumpkins plan to rock, and rock hard, before listeners notice the existential questions. "You know I'm not dead," he wails, as if he and his band are resurrected.
The songs go back to the basics of would-be hit singles: riffs, hooks, bridges, choruses, often with voice and guitar tossing the same short phrase back and forth. Corgan hasn't radically changed his songwriting; he still goes for anthems, riff rockers and dirges. But there are no more fantasy epics or muses named Daphne, and there's hardly a keyboard to be heard. Guitars rule: distorted electrics and hard-strummed acoustics, sitarlike drones and orchestral reverberations, tolling Pink Floyd tones, and jabbing, wriggling leads, with plenty of echoes of the Cure and U2.
Chamberlin's drums stand shoulder to shoulder with the guitars. The band's chemistry demands human muscle, not machine precision, and with Chamberlin back in place, the music surges forward again. Only one song, the neopsychedelic "Glass and the Ghost Children," is allowed to drift, echoing the dissolution of a woman lost to heroin; the rest of the album allows no digressions.
Corgan has streamlined his messages, too. The nearly seventy minutes of Machina boil down to a handful of recurring ideas: Love is good, drugs are bad, God is everywhere and — seriously — thanks for listening. They all merge in "This Time," with guitars shimmering behind the warning, "For every chemical/You trade a piece of your soul"; a rising chorus proclaims, "Crashing down, crashing down again/Only love, yeah, only love will win" as the singer mourns a failing romance that could also be a crumbling band.
The songs on Machina are one big search for love — from a woman, an audience or a deity. Over the stately glam-rock riff and stomp of "Heavy Metal Machine," Corgan imagines himself as a rock martyr, Ziggy Pumpkin: "If I were dead/Would my records sell?" And in "Wound," a jubilant U2-style march, what sounds like a love song turns to dreams of apocalypse and glimpses of divinity: "You're a part of me/Eternal one."
Clear hooks, a hefty beat, words of love and even a song, "I of the Mourning," about feeling lonely and listening to the radio — these are the earmarks of a band trying to reconquer the airwaves. Yet between the power chords, the Smashing Pumpkins insist that the songs are more than that. They are tales of tribulation — by drug abuse, by solitude, by apocalypse, by loss of audience — to be overcome by unconditional love, or at least the search for it. Corgan can't quite decide whether he wants to join God or be one. But if he can't guarantee salvation, he can still crank up the fuzz tone.